Physiological and Evolutionary Genomics Laboratory, Scottish Ocean Institute, School of Biology, University of St Andrews, St Andrews, Fife KY16 8LB, UK Department of Aquaculture and Fish Biology, Hólar University College, Háeyri 1, 550, Sauðárkrókur, Iceland Centre for Research into Ecological and Environmental Modelling, School of Mathematics and Statistics, University of St Andrews, St Andrews, Fife KY16 9LZ, UK.
Ecological factors have a major role in shaping natural variation in body size, although the underlying mechanisms are poorly understood. Icelandic Arctic charr (Salvelinus alpinus L.) populations represent an ideal model to understand body-size evolution, because adult dwarfism has arisen independently on multiple occasions in response to parallel environmental pressures. The mechanistic target of rapamycin (mTOR) pathway transmits signals from the environment to control cellular growth and is a primary candidate to be under selection for the dwarf phenotype. To test this hypothesis, we modified 'inputs' to this pathway in five dwarf and two generalist populations (with ancestral life history and body-size traits), using a standardized manipulation of food intake in a common environment. The skeletal muscle transcript levels of 21 mTOR-pathway genes were quantified in 274 individuals (~6000 datapoints), and statistical modelling was used to elucidate sources of variation. Constitutive expression differences between populations were the main component of variation for around three-quarters of the studied genes, irrespective of nutritional-state and body-size phenotype. There was evidence for stabilizing selection acting among populations, conserving the nutritionally dependent regulation of pathway genes controlling muscle atrophy. There were three genes (mTOR, 4E-BP-1 and IGFBP4), where the expression variation between dwarf and generalist populations exceeded the between-population variation. Divergence in the expression of these candidate adaptive genes was most evident during a period of rapid growth following sustained fasting and was directionally consistent with their functions regulating growth and protein synthesis. We concluded that selection has operated efficiently to shape gene expression evolution in Icelandic charr populations and that the regulation of certain mTOR-pathway genes evolved adaptively in locations favouring dwarfism, resulting in reduced muscle protein accretion under growth-favouring conditions.