Individual variation in gene expression is important for evolutionary adaptation and susceptibility to diseases and pathologies. In this study, we address the functional importance of this variation by comparing cardiac metabolism to patterns of mRNA expression using microarrays. There is extensive variation in both cardiac metabolism and the expression of metabolic genes among individuals of the teleost fish Fundulus heteroclitus from natural outbred populations raised in a common environment: metabolism differed among individuals by a factor of more than 2, and expression levels of 94% of genes were significantly different (P < 0.01) between individuals in a population. This unexpectedly high variation in metabolic gene expression explains much of the variation in metabolism, suggesting that it is biologically relevant. The patterns of gene expression that are most important in explaining cardiac metabolism differ between groups of individuals. Apparently, the variation in metabolism seems to be related to different patterns of gene expression in the different groups of individuals. The magnitude of differences in gene expression in these groups is not important; large changes in expression have no greater predictive value than small changes. These data suggest that variation in physiological performance is related to the subtle variation in gene expression and that this relationship differs among individuals.
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