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The genetic basis for wing pattern variation in African diadem butterflies

The genetic basis for wing pattern variation in African diadem butterflies

Supervisors: Prof. Chris Jiggins and Prof. Richard Ffrench-Constant

Project summary:

Speciation and adaptation are the fundamental processes that underlie the biodiversity of our planet. Tropical butterflies have offered many insights into the genetic basis for adaptation as their wing patterns that are adapted for mimicry and sexual selection. In particular, we understand how natural selection acts on wing patterns via both mimicry theory and experiments in the rainforest, as well as through behavioural assays of sexual behavior. Thus we have the potential to understand evolutionary processes on a single trait from natural selection in the wild through to the identifying specific mutations underlying the evolution of mimicry. In some cases the same loci are known to repeatedly control adaptive change across butterflies and moths, which raises the question of why particular genes are repeatedly targeted by natural selection.

In some Mullerian mimic species we now understand the genetic basis for wing pattern variation very well, but less is known about palatable Batesian mimics. A well known polymorphic species in Africa is Hypolimnas missipus, and this project will develop genetic tools in this species to study the genetic basis for wing pattern variation. This is exciting as almost nothing is known of the genetic

This project is in collaboration with Richard ffrench-Constant in University of Exeter, Ian Gordon in Rwanda and the Mpala Foundation in Kenya 


What the student will be doing:

You will analyse next-generation sequencing data for populations of butterflies that differ in their wing patterns, looking for associated genetic variants that are putatively causal for different wing patterns. This will involve assembly of a genome reference sequence for Hypolimnas missipus and will allow analyses of the evolutionary history of these wing regions. If possible you will also design experiments to test the function of these variants using CRISPR gene knockouts. The project will therefore combine analysis of Illumina sequence data for population genetic analysis with developmental biology studies of the function of wing patterning genes. This is exciting because of novel tools: the developmental differences in wing pattern between closely related species can now be studied using newly developed CRISPR techniques. The precise focus of the work will depend on the interests of the candidate. The project will involve extensive fieldwork in Africa.



Smith D a. S. 1976. Phenotypic diversity, mimicry and natural selection in the African butterfly Hypolimnas misippus L. (Lepidoptera: Nymphalidae). Biological Journal of the Linnean Society 8: 183–204.

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

Nadeau, N. J. et al. 2016. The gene cortex controls mimicry and crypsis in butterflies and moths. Nature 534, 106–110

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



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