Emergence of an evolutionary innovation: Gene expression differences associated with the transition between oviparity and viviparity Academic Article uri icon


  • Our understanding of the evolution of complex biological traits is greatly advanced by examining taxa with intermediate phenotypes. The transition from oviparity (egg-laying) to viviparity (live-bearing) has occurred independently in many animal lineages, but there are few phenotypic intermediates. The lizard Saiphos equalis exhibits bimodal reproduction, with some viviparous populations, and other oviparous populations with long egg-retention, a rare trait where most of embryonic development occurs inside the mother prior to late ovipositioning. We posit that oviparous S. equalis represent an intermediate form between "true" oviparity and viviparity. We used transcriptomics to compare uterine gene expression in these two phenotypes, and provide a molecular model for the genetic control and evolution of reproductive mode. Many genes are differentially expressed throughout the reproductive cycle of both phenotypes, which have clearly different gene expression profiles overall. The differentially expressed genes within oviparous and viviparous individuals have broadly similar biological functions putatively important for sustaining embryos, including uterine remodelling, respiratory gas and water exchange, and immune regulation. These functional similarities indicate either that long egg-retention is an exaptation for viviparity, or might reflect parallel evolution of similar gravidity-related changes in gene expression in long egg-retention oviparity. In contrast, gene expression changes across the reproductive cycle of long egg-retaining oviparous S. equalis are dramatically different from those of "true" oviparous skinks (such as Lampropholis guichenoti), supporting our assertion that oviparous S. equalis exhibit an intermediate phenotype between "true" oviparity and viviparity.

publication date

  • 2020