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Genetics of Hybrid Male Sterility between Drosophila Sibling Species: A Complex Web of Epistasis Is Revealed in Interspecific Studies

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To study the genetic differences responsible for the sterility of their male hybrids, we introgressed small segments of an X chromosome from Drosophila simulans into a pure Drosophila mauritiana genetic background, then assessed the fertility of males carrying heterospecific introgressions of varying size. Although this analysis examined less than 20% of the X chromosome (roughly 5% of the euchromatic portion of the D. simulans genome), and the segments were introgressed in only one direction, a minimum of four factors that contribute to hybrid male sterility were revealed. At least two of the factors exhibited strong epistasis: males carrying either factor alone were consistently fertile, whereas males carrying both factors together were always sterile. Distinct spermatogenic phenotypes were observed for sterile introgressions of different lengths, and it appeared that an interaction between introgressed segments also influenced the stage of spermatogenic defect. Males with one category of introgression often produced large quantities of motile sperm and were observed copulating, but never inseminated females. Evidently these two species have diverged at a large number of loci which have varied effects on hybrid male fertility. By extrapolation, we estimate that there are at least 40 such loci on the X chromosome alone. Because these species exhibit little DNA-sequence divergence at arbitrarily chosen loci, it seems unlikely that the extensive functional divergence observed could be due mainly to random genetic drift. Significant epistasis between conspecific genes appears to be a common component of hybrid sterility between recently diverged species of Drosophila. The linkage relationships of interacting factors could shed light on the role played by epistatic selection in the dynamics of the allele substitutions responsible for reproductive barriers between species.

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