Lake Malawi cichlid fishes exhibit extensive divergence in form and function built from a relatively small number of genetic changes. We compared the genomes of rock- and sand-dwelling species and asked which genetic variants differed among the groups. We found that 96% of differentiated variants reside in non-coding sequence but these non-coding diverged variants are evolutionarily conserved. Genome regions near differentiated variants are enriched for craniofacial, neural and behavioral categories. Following leads from genome sequence, we used rock- vs. sand-species and their hybrids to (i) delineate the push–pull roles of BMP signaling and irx1b in the specification of forebrain territories during gastrulation and (ii) reveal striking context-dependent brain gene expression during adult social behavior. Our results demonstrate how divergent genome sequences can predict differences in key evolutionary traits. We highlight the promise of evolutionary reverse genetics—the inference of phenotypic divergence from unbiased genome sequencing and then empirical validation in natural populations.
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