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"Butterfly Bacteria" -- The Discovery Files

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A team led by the University of Colorado Boulder has sequenced the internal bacterial makeup of the three major life stages of a butterfly species, a project that showed some surprising events occur during metamorphosis.

Credit: NSF/Karson Productions

Audio Transcript:

"Airborne microbial habitats"

I'm Bob Karson with the discovery files--new advances in science and engineering from the National Science Foundation.

The frail and delicate butterfly: So clean, colorful and light in flight. But like the rest of us, their tiny bodies harbor a community of bacteria in all stages of life. A team led by the University of Colorado Boulder has sequenced the internal bacterial makeup of a certain butterfly through its entire life cycle, and has uncovered some surprising events.

The collection of microorganisms in a single animal is important. Bacterial groups have been found to affect metabolic and developmental processes from food digestion and vitamin synthesis to possible brain function. In this case, studying the butterfly bacteria may give us more clues to the caterpillar stage, and ways to control potential damage to crops.

The CU-Boulder study involved sequencing the bacterial DNA during the caterpillar, pupa and butterfly stages. They found bacterial diversity dropped by half when the red postman morphed from caterpillar to chrysalis (or pupa) stage then doubled in the adult butterfly stage. As it makes the transition from caterpillar to butterfly, there are dramatic changes in their microbial communities.

Makes me want to think twice about butterfly kisses.

"The discovery files" covers projects funded by the government's National Science Foundation. Federally sponsored research--brought to you, by you! Learn more at or on our podcast.

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