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May 7, 2018

The genetic path to biodiversity

Butterflies and moths constitute 10 percent of all known biodiversity in terms of numbers of named species. Understanding the formation of color patterns has long played a central theme in understanding biology, and butterfly wing color patterns represent a prime model to explore the history, genes and mechanisms underlying wing patterning. With support from the National Science Foundation (NSF), developmental biologist Arnaud Martin and his team at George Washington University are using cutting-edge genomic techniques, such as CRISPR, to better understand how the rich stripes and swirls of a butterfly's wing take their shape. "The wing patterns are used in nature for camouflage, avoiding predators, indicating toxicity and to find mates," says Martin. "So, we know why they are all so diverse, but now the question, I would say, is to understand how it happens, how do you create such an explosive diversity during deep evolutionary time." A single gene (WntA) drives shape changes across the wing surface in many distantly related species, thus suggesting a fundamental and ancestral function in butterfly wing formation. Together with research teams at the University of Puerto Rico and Cornell University, Martin's lab is setting the foundation for understanding how the DNA code can give rise to tremendous diversity of living beings on the planet.

The research in this episode was supported by NSF award #1656553, Collaborative Research: cis-Regulatory Basis of Butterfly Wing Pattern Evolution.

Credit: National Science Foundation

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