Adaptive shifts in gene regulation underlie a developmental delay in thermogenesis in high-altitude deer mice

Jonathan P. Velotta, Cayleih E. Robertson, Rena M. Schweizer, Grant B. McClelland, Zachary A. Cheviron

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

15 Scopus citations


Aerobic performance is tied to fitness as it influences an animal’s ability to find food, escape predators, or survive extreme conditions. At high altitude, where low O2 availability and persistent cold prevail, maximum metabolic heat production (thermogenesis) is an aerobic performance trait that is closely linked to survival. Understanding how thermogenesis evolves to enhance survival at high altitude will yield insight into the links between physiology, performance, and fitness. Recent work in deer mice (Peromyscus maniculatus) has shown that adult mice native to high altitude have higher thermogenic capacities under hypoxia compared with lowland conspecifics, but that developing high-altitude pups delay the onset of thermogenesis. This finding suggests that natural selection on thermogenic capacity varies across life stages. To determine the mechanistic cause of this ontogenetic delay, we analyzed the transcriptomes of thermoeffector organs—brown adipose tissue and skeletal muscle—in developing deer mice native to low and high altitude. We demonstrate that the developmental delay in thermogenesis is associated with adaptive shifts in the expression of genes involved in nervous system development, fuel/O2 supply, and oxidative metabolism pathways. Our results demonstrate that selection has modified the developmental trajectory of the thermoregulatory system at high altitude and has done so by acting on the regulatory systems that control the maturation of thermoeffector tissues. We suggest that the cold and hypoxic conditions of high altitude force a resource allocation tradeoff, whereby limited energy is allocated to developmental processes such as growth, versus active thermogenesis, during early development.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2309-2321
Number of pages13
JournalMolecular Biology and Evolution
Issue number8
StatePublished - 2020


  • Gene expression
  • High elevation
  • Peromyscus
  • Thermogenic capacity
  • Thermoregulation


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