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It Pays to Be Different:Evolutionary Distinctiveness and Conservation Priorities

Tue, 15 Jul 2014 13:15:25 +0000

The world is currently experiencing an extinction crisis. A mass extinction on a scale not seen since the dinosaurs. While conservationists work tirelessly to try and protect the World’s biodiversity, it will not be possible to save everything, and it is important to focus conservation efforts intelligently. Evolutionary distinctiveness is a measure of how isolated [...]

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Synthetic Biology and Conservation

Mon, 07 Jul 2014 16:20:18 +0000

Synthetic biology, a hybrid between Engineering and Biology, is an emerging field of research promising to change the way we think about manufacturing, medicine, food production, and even conservation and sustainability. A review paper released this month in Oryx, authored by Dr Kent Redford, Professor William Adams, Dr Rob Carlson, Bertina Ceccarelli and CBER’s Professor [...]

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Measure Twice, Cut Once: Quantifying Biases in Sexual Selection Studies

Wed, 25 Jun 2014 10:44:30 +0000

Bateman’s principles are conceptually quite simple, but form the basis of our understanding of sexual selection across the animal kingdom. First proposed in 1948, Bateman’s three principles posit that sexual selection is more intense in males than in females for three reasons: 1) males show more variability in the number of mates they have (mating [...]

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Technology for Nature?

Mon, 16 Jun 2014 13:23:54 +0000

Many of our greatest technological advances have tended to mark disaster for nature. Cars guzzle fossil fuels and contribute to global warming; industrialised farming practices cause habitat loss and pollution; computers and mobile phones require harmful mining procedures to harvest rare metals. But increasingly, ecologists and conservation biologists are asking whether we can use technology [...]

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Nice Flies Don’t Finish Last: Meiotic Drive and Sexual Selection in Stalk-Eyed Flies

Thu, 12 Jun 2014 15:54:47 +0000

While it might seem as though our genes are all working together for our own good, some of them are actually rather selfish. Scientists have known about ‘selfish genetic elements’ for nearly a century, but research to understand their behaviour and effects is ongoing. Recent research in GEE reveals how sexually selected traits are signalling [...]

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Butterfly genome reveals a promiscuous past: paper by Dr Kanchon Dasmahapatra with Prof Jim Mallet published in Nature

25 May 2012

16 May 2012

Heliconius melpomene

An international collaborative study to map the genome of a South American butterfly has identified the secret behind its mimetic nature.

The genome sequence of the Postman butterfly, Heliconius melpomene, was used as a reference to study species that live together in the Peruvian Amazon. Several of these share bright wing patterns in order to reinforce a warning signal that they are bad to eat - dissuading predators from attack.

Sequence data showed that those species with similar wing patterns shared a similar genetic signal, precisely in those narrow regions of the genome responsible for controlling patterns. This is a result of hybrid exchange of genes between three co-mimic species, which has allowed them to copy each other’s wing patterns.

Dr Kanchon Dasmahapatra (UCL Genetic, Evolution & Environment), who worked with Professor James Mallet, said, “What we show is that one butterfly species can gain its protective colour pattern genes ready-made from a different species by hybridizing (or interbreeding) with it. A much faster process than having to evolve one's colour patterns from scratch.”

Dr Chris Jiggins of the University of Cambridge said, “These butterflies, in order to better survive in the wild, have taken successful survival techniques from other butterflies and have incorporated them into their own genetic code. This is significant as it has occurred in a natural adaptive radiation, suggesting an important role for hybrids in the origins of biodiversity.”

What we show is that one butterfly species can gain its protective colour pattern genes ready-made from a different species by hybridizing (or interbreeding) with it. A much faster process than having to evolve one's colour patterns from scratch.

Kanchon Dasmahapatra

The phenomenon, known as adaptive introgression, involves different species sharing genetic material and has been considered very rare, especially in animals. Although many species can interbreed in the wild, the resulting hybrids are often infertile and considered an evolutionary dead-end.

However, occasionally hybrids might introduce useful genetic material that can help populations adapt to changing conditions. This source of novelty might be more effective than having to wait for a mutation to occur in order to yield a similar result. In the case of butterflies, the effects can be clearly seen on their wings.

The butterfly genus Heliconius is found in the tropical and sub-tropical regions of the Americas, from the Amazon basin to Texas and has been studied by scientists since the Victorian era.

Dr Jiggins added: “The genus Heliconius has been the subject of evolutionary studies since Darwin's time, and the original formulation of mimicry theory. We are especially interested in them because their convergent wing patterns offer an opportunity to study the repeatability of evolutionary change.”

The sequencing of a butterfly genome also offers some remarkable insights into the biology of these charismatic insects. Butterflies are thought to be more visual in their communication as compared to night-flying moths. Surprisingly, analysis carried out at the University of California by Adriana Briscoe showed that they have an even greater array of genes involved in chemical communication as compared to moths.

Owen McMillan of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama said: “We are accustomed to thinking of butterflies as brightly coloured, primarily visual insects, but the presence of such a rich array of olfactory receptors and chemosensory genes, suggests that smell and taste are also vital.”

The study heralds a new era in genome biology, in which genome sequencing has become available to small groups of researchers for their own organism of choice. In this case academics from 9 labs across the globe each contributed to a pool of funding that permitted the sequencing effort, without any major grant funding.

Image: Heliconius melpomene aglaope – this race has shared its wing pattern with another population from Colombia, Heliconius timareta florencia. Credit: Chris Jiggins

Links:

UCL Research Department of Genetics, Evolution and Environment
Heliconius homepage
Research in Nature

Page last modified on 25 may 12 10:33