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Dev Genes Evol. 2011 Dec;221(5-6):297-308. doi: 10.1007/s00427-011-0380-6. Epub 2011 Dec 3.

Convergent, modular expression of ebony and tan in the mimetic wing patterns of Heliconius butterflies.

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Department of Zoology, University of Cambridge, Downing Street, Cambridge, UK CB2 3EJ.


The evolution of pigmentation in vertebrates and flies has involved repeated divergence at a small number of genes related to melanin synthesis. Here, we study insect melanin synthesis genes in Heliconius butterflies, a group characterised by its diversity of wing patterns consisting of black (melanin), and yellow and red (ommochrome) pigmented scales. Consistent with their respective biochemical roles in Drosophila melanogaster, ebony is upregulated in non-melanic wing regions destined to be pigmented red whilst tan is upregulated in melanic regions. Wing regions destined to be pigmented yellow, however, are downregulated for both genes. This pattern is conserved across multiple divergent and convergent phenotypes within the Heliconii, suggesting a conserved mechanism for the development of black, red and yellow pattern elements across the genus. Linkage mapping of five melanin biosynthesis genes showed that, in contrast to other organisms, these genes do not control pattern polymorphism. Thus, the pigmentation genes themselves are not the locus of evolutionary change but lie downstream of a wing pattern regulatory factor. The results suggest a modular system in which particular combinations of genes are switched on whenever red, yellow or black pattern elements are favoured by natural selection for diverse and mimetic wing patterns.

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