Polygenic evolution drives species divergence and climate adaptation in corals


Closely related species often show substantial differences in ecological traits that allow them to occupy different environmental niches. For few of these systems is it clear what the genomic basis of adaptation is and whether a few loci of major effect or many genome-wide differences drive species divergence. Four cryptic species of the tabletop coral Acropora hyacinthus are broadly sympatric in American Samoa; here we show that two common species have differences in key environmental traits such as microhabitat distributions and thermal stress tolerance. We compared gene expression patterns and genetic polymorphism between these two species using RNA-Seq. The vast majority of polymorphisms are shared between species, but the two species show widespread differences in allele frequencies and gene expression, and tend to host different symbiont types. We find that changes in gene expression are related to changes in the frequencies of many gene regulatory variants, but that many of these differences are consistent with the action of genetic drift. However, we observe greater genetic divergence between species in amino acid replacement polymorphisms compared to synonymous variants. These findings suggest that polygenic evolution plays a major role in driving species differences in ecology and resilience to climate change.