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Author Notes:

Correspondence: jrmerri@emory.edu

Author contributions: J.R.M., K.E.G., W.M.Z.-K., E.A.O., S.V.Y., and D.L.M. designed research; J.R.M., K.E.G., W.M.Z.-K., D.S., E.A.O., S.V.Y., and D.L.M. performed research; J.R.M., K.E.G., W.M.Z.-K., D.S., E.A.O., S.V.Y., and D.L.M. analyzed data; and J.R.M. and D.L.M. wrote the paper.

Acknowledgements: We thank Carlos Rodriguez-Saltos, T. J. Libecap, Suzanne Mays, William Hudson, Emily Kim, and Aubrey Kelly for technical assistance.

Disclosures: The authors declare no competing interest.


Research Funding:

This work was supported by NIH Grant 1R01MH082833 (to D.L.M.), NSF Grant IOS-1627789 (to D.L.M.), and NIH Grant 1F31MH114509 (to J.R.M.).


  • Science & Technology
  • Multidisciplinary Sciences
  • Science & Technology - Other Topics
  • chromosomal inversion
  • songbird
  • social behavior
  • White throated sparrow
  • Zonotrichia albicollis
  • Gene disruption
  • Trade-offs
  • Life
  • Alpha
  • Evolution
  • Organization
  • Architecture

A supergene-linked estrogen receptor drives alternative phenotypes in a polymorphic songbird


Journal Title:

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America


Volume 117, Number 35


, Pages 21673-21680

Type of Work:

Article | Final Publisher PDF


Behavioral evolution relies on genetic changes, yet few behaviors can be traced to specific genetic sequences in vertebrates. Here we provide experimental evidence showing that differentiation of a single gene has contributed to the evolution of divergent behavioral phenotypes in the white-throated sparrow, a common backyard songbird. In this species, a series of chromosomal inversions has formed a supergene that segregates with an aggressive phenotype. The supergene has captured ESR1, the gene that encodes estrogen receptor α (ERα); as a result, this gene is accumulating changes that now distinguish the supergene allele from the standard allele. Our results show that in birds of the more aggressive phenotype, ERα knockdown caused a phenotypic change to that of the less aggressive phenotype. We next showed that in a freeliving population, aggression is predicted by allelic imbalance favoring the supergene allele. Finally, we identified cis-regulatory features, both genetic and epigenetic, that explain the allelic imbalance. This work provides a rare illustration of how genotypic divergence has led to behavioral phenotypic divergence in a vertebrate.

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© 2020 National Academy of Science. All rights reserved.

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