More than 150 years after the seminal works of Charles Darwin on speciation, we are beginning to unravel the genetic underpinnings of the splitting process (Ellegren H [..] JBW Wolf, Nature, in press). The genomic revolution is progressing at full speed, and for the first time in history we are equipped with the necessary tools to investigate the genomic architecture of speciation at base-pair resolution in any organisms of our choice. When integrated to the mature theoretical framework of the evolutionary sciences, this wealth of genome-scale data will produce fundamental insights into the processes governing adaptation and speciation.
Here, I identify a novel evolutionary model system - crows and ravens of the genus Corvus - and demonstrate its potential for speciation genetic and functional genomic research. Central to this system is the phylogenetically independent recurrence of a pied colour-pattern in several species that stands in contrasts to the predominant all-black plumage in the clade. Building on the idea that colour polymorphism can promote speciation through sexual selection, I choose a number of black and pied species pairs that can be positioned along a time line representing different stages of the speciation process. This comparative framework is unrivalled in its setup and is uniquely suited to study the genetics of speciation across different stages of species divergence. It also provides a promising entry point to the fascinating theme of parallel evolution.
This research program is among the first to harness the possibilities of the post-genomic era in a wild organism. Using a combination of population- and phylo-genomic approaches, single sperm sequencing, experimental work in a breeding population, systems biology approaches and in situ mRNA quantification at cellular resolution, this interdisciplinary program covers novel ground in the nascent field of functional avian genomics and pushes the boundaries of speciation genetic research.
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