Gene expression under thermal stress varies across a geographical range expansion front

Lesley T. Lancaster, Rachael Y. Dudaniec, Pallavi Chauhan, Maren Wellenreuther, Erik I. Svensson, Bengt Hansson

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Many ectothermic species are currently expanding their distributions polewards due to anthropogenic global warming. Molecular genetic mechanisms facilitating range expansion under these conditions are largely unknown, but understanding these could help mitigate expanding pests and disease vectors, or help explain why some species fail to track changing climates. Here, using RNA-seq data, we examine genomewide changes in gene expression under heat and cold stress in the range-expanding damselfly Ischnura elegans in northern Europe. We find that both the number of genes involved and levels of gene expression under heat stress have become attenuated during the expansion, consistent with a previously reported release from selection on heat tolerances as species move polewards. Genes upregulated under cold stress differed between core and edge populations, corroborating previously reported rapid adaptation to cooler climates at the expansion front. Expression of sixty-nine genes exhibited a region x treatment effect; these were primarily upregulated in response to heat stress in core populations but in response to cold stress at the range edge, suggesting that some cellular responses originally adapted to heat stress may switch to cold-stress functionality upon encountering novel thermal selection regimes during range expansion. Transcriptional responses to thermal stress involving heat-shock and neural function genes were largely geographically conserved, while retrotransposon, regulatory, muscle function and defence gene expression patterns were more variable. Flexible mechanisms of cold-stress response and the ability of some genes to shift their function between heat and cold stress might be key mechanisms facilitating rapid poleward expansion in insects.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1141-1156
Number of pages16
JournalMolecular Ecology
Issue number5
Early online date21 Feb 2016
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2016

Bibliographical note

We would like to thank Hanna Bensch and Hannes Weise for assistance with the collection of samples in the field. This work was supported by the Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services in a Changing Climate (BECC; a joint Lund-Gothenburg University initiative), the Swedish Research Council (EIS, BH), the Crafoord Foundation (EIS, BH), the Swedish Royal Society (EIS), ‘Gyllenstiernska Krapperupstiftelsen (EIS), the Wenner-Gren Foundations (postdoctoral stipend to RYD), EU FP7 (Marie Curie International Incoming Fellowship to RYD), the Kungliga Fysiografiska Sällskapet i Lund (MW) and the Helge Ax:son Johnson Stiftelse (MW).
B.H. and E.I.S. conceived of the study. L.L. developed the hypotheses to be tested. L.L. and R.D. collected the field data and samples. All six authors contributed to planning RNA-seq analyses. P.C. and L.L. analysed the data. L.L. wrote the manuscript, which all six authors edited.


  • colonization
  • invasion
  • Odonata
  • poleward expansion
  • range shift
  • thermal tolerance


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