Genomic analysis of the only blind cichlid reveals extensive inactivation in eye and pigment formation genes

Matthew L. Aardema, Melanie L.J. Stiassny, S. Elizabeth Alter

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

10 Scopus citations


Trait loss represents an intriguing evolutionary problem, particularly when it occurs across independent lineages. Fishes in light-poor environments often evolve “troglomorphic” traits, including reduction or loss of both pigment and eyes. Here, we investigate the genomic basis of trait loss in a blind and depigmented African cichlid, Lamprologus lethops, and explore evolutionary forces (selection and drift) that may have contributed to these losses. This species, the only known blind cichlid, is endemic to the lower Congo River. Available evidence suggests that it inhabits deep, low-light habitats. Using genome sequencing, we show that genes related to eye formation and pigmentation, as well as other traits associated with troglomorphism, accumulated inactivating mutations rapidly after speciation. A number of the genes affected in L. lethops are also implicated in troglomorphic phenotypes in Mexican cavefish (Astyanax mexicanus) and other species. Analysis of heterozygosity patterns across the genome indicates that L. lethops underwent a significant population bottleneck roughly 1 Ma, after which effective population sizes remained low. Branch-length tests on a subset of genes with inactivating mutations show little evidence of directional selection; however, low overall heterozygosity may reduce statistical power to detect such signals. Overall, genome-wide patterns suggest that accelerated genetic drift from a severe bottleneck, perhaps aided by directional selection for the loss of physiologically expensive traits, caused inactivating mutations to fix rapidly in this species.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1392-1406
Number of pages15
JournalGenome Biology and Evolution
Issue number8
StatePublished - 2021


  • Adaptation
  • Cave fish
  • Convergent evolution
  • Depigmentation
  • Trait loss
  • Troglomorphic
  • Vision genes


Dive into the research topics of 'Genomic analysis of the only blind cichlid reveals extensive inactivation in eye and pigment formation genes'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this