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The sexy smells of tropical butterflies: Genetics of pheromones and female choice

The sexy smells of tropical butterflies: Genetics of pheromones and female choice

Supervisors: Prof. Chris Jiggins

Project summary:

Speciation is the fundamental process that underlies the biodiversity of our plant, and despite a wealth of recent theoretical and empirical advances, there is much we still do not understand. The Heliconius butterflies offer an excellent opportunity to gain insights into the genetic architecture of speciation and its genomic consequences, by integrating genomic data with ecological and behavioural processes that underlie speciation in this group. The wing patterns of this group are particularly well studied, but in contrast we know little about chemical communication, which also plays an important role in sexual communication and species recognition. This project will study the genetic basis for pheromone differences between species and the corresponding female preferences for those differences. The work will involve analysis of crossing experiments combined with genomic and chemical analysis will be used to carry out Quantitative Trait Locus analysis of differences in pheromones between H.  melpomene and H. cydno. Genetic analysis will be complemented by behavioural assays to study the role of specific compounds in mating behaviour. 


What the student will be doing:

You will design experiments to follow up on QTL analysis of pheromone differences between species that are currently underway. This may involve raising more controlled crosses between H. melpomene and H. cydno in panama and collecting chemical samples from the wings of hybrid butterflies. These samples will be analysed in the laboratory of our collaborator in Germany, Stefan Schulz. If the resolution of mapping experiments is sufficient you could also carry out genetic manipulation experiments using CRISPR to test the function of candidate wing pheromone genes, and conduct behavioural experiments with resulting mutants. You will also carry out behavioural trials to study the genetic basis of preference behaviours. You will use synthesised compounds to study the function of specific compounds in butterfly courtship, mating and species recognition. 



The Heliconius Genome Consortium. Butterfly genome reveals promiscuous exchange of mimicry adaptations among species. Nature 487, 94–98 (2012).

Merrill, R. M., Van Schooten, B., Scott, J. A. & Jiggins, C. D. Pervasive genetic associations between traits causing reproductive isolation in Heliconius butterflies. Proc. R. Soc. 278, 511–518 (2011).

Liénard, Marjorie A., Hong-Lei Wang, Jean-Marc Lassance, and Christer Löfstedt. Sex Pheromone Biosynthetic Pathways Are Conserved between Moths and the Butterfly Bicyclus anynana . Nature Communications 5, 3957 (2014). doi:10.1038/ncomms4957.



None for the student. ERC funding to support research costs.