Focus-Science and Technology - - Discoveries -

But­ter­fly wings have been given a new look by re­searchers who used the gene-edit­ing tool CRISPR to al­ter the colours and pat­terns of their dis­tinc­tive mark­ings.

The in­ter­na­tional team based at the Smith­so­nian Trop­i­cal Re­search In­sti­tute in Panama fo­cused their at­ten­tion on the WntA gene – a gene known to strongly in­flu­ence the stag­ger­ing di­ver­sity of shapes and colours found in but­ter­fly wing pat­terns in na­ture. They dis­cov­ered that by ‘rewiring’ this gene us­ing the DNA-snip­ping tool CRISPR, they were able to cus­tomise the wing mark­ings of seven dif­fer­ent but­ter­fly species.

“Imag­ine a paint-by-num­bers im­age of a but­ter­fly,” said re­searcher Owen McMil­lan. “The in­struc­tions for colour­ing the wing are writ­ten in the ge­netic code. By delet­ing some of the in­struc­tions, we can in­fer which part says ‘paint the num­ber 2s red’ or ‘paint the num­ber 1s black’. Of course, it’s re­ally a lot more com­pli­cated than this, be­cause what is ac­tu­ally chang­ing are net­works of genes that have a cas­cad­ing ef­fect on pat­tern and colour.”

The team hopes that the find­ings will even­tu­ally help them to learn more about how the colour­ful in­sects evolved.

“The but­ter­flies and moths, or Lepi­doptera, are the third largest group of or­gan­isms known on the planet,” said Dr Arnaud Mar­tin. “Once we have iden­ti­fied the sets of genes that are reg­u­lated by a gene like WntA, we can look at the se­quence of dif­fer­ent but­ter­flies in the fam­ily tree to see when and where these changes took place dur­ing the 60 mil­lion years of but­ter­fly evo­lu­tion.”

A nor­mal Heli­co­nius sara but­ter­fly is shown on the left; the same species that has had its genes edited us­ing CRISPR is shown on the right

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