Cichlid fishes provide textbook examples of explosive phenotypic diversification and sympatric speciation, thereby making them ideal systems for studying the molecular mechanisms underlying rapid lineage divergence. Despite the fact that gene regulation provides a critical link between diversification in gene function and speciation, many genomic regulatory mechanisms such as microRNAs (miRNAs) have received little attention in these rapidly diversifying groups. Therefore, we investigated the posttranscriptional regulatory role of miRNAs in the repeated sympatric divergence of Midas cichlids (Amphilophus spp.) from Nicaraguan crater lakes. Using miRNA and mRNA sequencing of embryos from five Midas species, we first identified miRNA binding sites in mRNAs and highlighted the presences of a surprising number of novel miRNAs in these adaptively radiating species. Then, through analyses of expression levels, we identified putative miRNA/gene target pairs with negatively correlated expression level that were consistent with the role of miRNA in downregulating mRNA. Furthermore, we determined that several miRNA/gene pairs show convergent expression patterns associated with the repeated benthic/limnetic sympatric species divergence implicating these miRNAs as potential molecular mechanisms underlying replicated sympatric divergence. Finally, as these candidate miRNA/gene pairs may play a central role in phenotypic diversification in these cichlids, we characterized the expression domains of selected miRNAs and their target genes via in situ hybridization, providing further evidence that miRNA regulation likely plays a role in the Midas cichlid adaptive radiation. These results provide support for the hypothesis that extremely quickly evolving miRNA regulation can contribute to rapid evolutionary divergence even in the presence of gene flow.
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