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Conservation and flexibility in the gene regulatory landscape of heliconiine butterfly wings.

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Wallbank, Richard WR 
McMillan, W Owen 
Jiggins, Chris D 


BACKGROUND: Many traits evolve by cis-regulatory modification, by which changes to noncoding sequences affect the binding affinity for available transcription factors and thus modify the expression profile of genes. Multiple examples of cis-regulatory evolution have been described at pattern switch genes responsible for butterfly wing pattern polymorphism, including in the diverse neotropical genus Heliconius, but the identities of the factors that can regulate these switch genes have not been identified. RESULTS: We investigated the spatial transcriptomic landscape across the wings of three closely related butterfly species, two of which have a convergently evolved co-mimetic pattern and the other having a divergent pattern. We identified candidate factors for regulating the expression of wing patterning genes, including transcription factors with a conserved expression profile in all three species, and others, including both transcription factors and Wnt pathway genes, with markedly different profiles in each of the three species. We verified the conserved expression profile of the transcription factor homothorax by immunofluorescence and showed that its expression profile strongly correlates with that of the selector gene optix in butterflies with the Amazonian forewing pattern element 'dennis.' CONCLUSION: Here we show that, in addition to factors with conserved expression profiles like homothorax, there are also a variety of transcription factors and signaling pathway components that appear to vary in their expression profiles between closely related butterfly species, highlighting the importance of genome-wide regulatory evolution between species.



Butterfly, Cis-regulation, Gene expression, Heliconius, Homothorax, Transcription factor, Transcriptomics, Wnt signaling

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Springer Science and Business Media LLC


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European Research Council (339873)
Leverhulme Trust (RPG-2014-167)
Wellcome Trust, ERC and Leverhulme Trust