It’s not exactly news that most butterfly species sport striking hues and that their wings come in a multitude of intricate patterns. It’s no secret either that many butterfly species can use genetic manipulation to imitate other insects, moths, and noxious tasting butterflies to protect themselves from predators. But the element that was eluding scientists was how exactly these alterations were being achieved.
Now, the latest research has shown that just two genes are behind this adaptation. This came as a surprise as most believed that the patterns and colors were the results of complex processes. However, researchers now believe that they might be able to replicate it to make their own versions of butterfly wings.
Why the Right Genes Matter in Making Butterfly Wing Patterns
Scientists have long speculated that genetics controlled the colors spotted on butterflies. But researchers at Cornell University recently got a surprise when they deleted a single gene called the optix.This was turned off from the eggs of the Gulf fritillary butterflies. The fritillaries are usually a deep brown.
But the loss of the optix gene resulted in black and silver in color such butterflies as they reached adulthood. Likewise, the typically brown and yellow patterned buckeye butterfly was a solid and brilliant blue in adulthood after being deprived of the optix.
Meanwhile, another Cornell study conducted in partnership with George Washington University researchers was discovering something else about a second butterfly gene. After deleting the gene known as WntA from the eggs, the standard wing patterns in adults were noticeably different. In monarch butterflies, for example, missing WntA resulted in specimens with very visible white lines on their typically trademarked orange and black wings.
“The two different genes are complementary. They are painting genes specialized, in a way, for making patterns,” states Arnaud Martin, one of the study leads.
What Scientists Can Do With This Information on the Butterfly Wing
In addition to pinpointing the two genes that determine the wing color and patterns of all butterflies, researchers have developed a new gene editing method. This will ultimately allow researchers to instruct these genes as to what colors and patterns to use. Such manipulation could offer science a new insight into evolutionary biology choices.