Papa’s lab at the UPR-RP unraveling the complex evolution of color patterns is published in Nature Ecology & Evolution

02/21/ 2017

Understanding the development of color patterns has long played a central theme in evolutionary biology. In a recent publication in Nature Ecology & Evolution titled “Complex modular architecture around a simple toolkit of wing pattern genes”, a group of researchers from the University of Puerto Rico in Rio Piedras (Riccardo PapaMayte Ruiz and Steven Van Belleghem) and colleagues from 10 distinct universities, identified positions in the genome that hold the functional variation controlling different color patterns in butterfly wings. This functional variation is not found in the color pattern genes themselves, but rather in non-coding regions that can be imagined as the switches turning on pixels in a computer screen. Many of the identified intervals point to a novel evolutionary story that helps us understand how a large part of the diversity within Heliconius butterflies came about. Pinpointing these genomic intervals has been the result of a long history of genetic work preceding this study as well as a multitude of current collaborations.

Prof.Brian Counterman

Prof. Riccardo Papa

Prof. Owen McMillan

Dr.Van Belleghem

Traditional crossing experiments in Heliconius began as early as the 1950’s and described a mix of over 30 linked and unlinked color pattern loci, including several that appeared to control major changes in wing coloration (Turner 1972; Sheppard et al. 1985). However, more recently the genomic locations of these major color pattern loci have started to be resolved (Kapan et al. 2006; Kronforst et al. 2006; Joron et al. 2006; Counterman et al. 2010; Baxter et al. 2010, Papa et al. 2013). This genetic mapping collapsed the more than 30 previously described color pattern loci to only a handful of genomic loci. Hence, this made what once seemed complex, to actually be controlled by a simple genetic “toolkit” (Reed et al. 2011; Martin et al. 2012; Nadeau et al. 2016).

In this recent study Van Belleghem (the first author) and Papa (the senior investigator) analyzed Heliconius butterflies from most of its widespread range throughout Central and South America. The whole genome sequence of more than one hundred individuals generated a new comprehensive image of the genetic architecture underlying diversity in Heliconius wing patterns. With their most recent work, Van Belleghem, Ruiz Papa are excited to make Heliconius color pattern genetics complex once again! Van Belleghem and his colleagues found that at the major color pattern loci, there are much smaller regulatory regions that modulate color pattern variation in a fashion that provides a flexible mechanism for rapid diversification of color patterns.

Van Belleghem S.M., Rastas P., Papanicolaou A., Martin S.H., Arias C.F., Supple M.A., Hanly J.J., Mallet J., Lewis J.J., Hines H.M., Ruiz M., Salazar C., Linares M., Moreira G.R.P., Jiggins C.D., Counterman B.A., McMillan W.O. & Papa R., 2017 Complex modular architecture around a simple toolkit of wing pattern genesNature Ecology & Evolution1:0052.