Letter | Published:

Allelic variation in a fatty-acyl reductase gene causes divergence in moth sex pheromones

Nature volume 466, pages 486489 (22 July 2010) | Download Citation


Pheromone-based behaviours are crucial in animals from insects to mammals1,2, and reproductive isolation is often based on pheromone differences1,2,3,4. However, the genetic mechanisms by which pheromone signals change during the evolution of new species are largely unknown4. In the sexual communication system of moths (Insecta: Lepidoptera), females emit a species-specific pheromone blend that attracts males over long distances1,2,4. The European corn borer, Ostrinia nubilalis, consists of two sex pheromone races, Z and E, that use different ratios of the cis and trans isomers of acetate pheromone components5. This subtle difference leads to strong reproductive isolation in the field between the two races6,7, which could represent a first step in speciation. Female sex pheromone production and male behavioural response are under the control of different major genes8,9, but the identity of these genes is unknown. Here we show that allelic variation in a fatty-acyl reductase gene essential for pheromone biosynthesis accounts for the phenotypic variation in female pheromone production, leading to race-specific signals. Both the cis and trans isomers of the pheromone precursors are produced by both races, but the precursors are differentially reduced to yield opposite ratios in the final pheromone blend as a result of the substrate specificity of the enzymes encoded by the Z and E alleles. This is the first functional characterization of a gene contributing to intraspecific behavioural reproductive isolation in moths, highlighting the importance of evolutionary diversification in a lepidopteran-specific family of reductases. Accumulation of substitutions in the coding region of a single biosynthetic enzyme can produce pheromone differences resulting in reproductive isolation, with speciation as a potential end result.

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Data deposits

The sequences reported in this article are deposited in GenBank under accession numbers FJ807735–FJ807736, GU808256–GU808276 and GU733831–GU733832.


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We thank R. G. Harrison for his comments and advice. This research was funded by the Swedish Research Council (VR), the Swedish Research Council for Environment, Agricultural Sciences and Spatial Planning (FORMAS) and the Max-Planck-Gesellschaft.

Author information


  1. Department of Biology, Lund University, 22362 Lund, Sweden

    • Jean-Marc Lassance
    • , Marjorie A. Liénard
    • , Binu Antony
    •  & Christer Löfstedt
  2. Department of Entomology, Max-Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology, 07745 Jena, Germany

    • Astrid T. Groot
    • , Christin Borgwardt
    •  & David G. Heckel
  3. Department of Natural Sciences, Engineering and Mathematics, Mid Sweden University, 85170 Sundsvall, Sweden

    • Fredrik Andersson
    •  & Erik Hedenström


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J.M.L., A.T.G., D.G.H. and C.L. performed project design and interpretation. J.M.L., M.A.L. and B.A. conducted cloning of pgFAR cDNAs. F.A. and E.H. were responsible for the synthesis of precursors. J.M.L. and M.A.L. performed the functional assays. J.M.L. conducted the gas chromatography–mass spectrometry analyses. A.T.G., C.B. and D.G.H. performed QTL analyses and gene mapping. D.G.H. was responsible for the genomic sequence analysis. J.M.L. performed the transcriptional analysis. J.M.L. was responsible for bioinformatics. J.M.L., A.T.G., M.A.L., D.G.H. and C.L. prepared the manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Jean-Marc Lassance or Christer Löfstedt.

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    Supplementary Information

    This file contains Supplementary Methods, References, Supplementary Figures 1-5 with legends and Supplementary Tables 1-3.

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