'Taste sensor' genes in female butterflies vital to species' survival

Jul 11, 2013

Giving the phrase "Mother knows best" a whole new meaning, UC Irvine researchers have identified unique genes in female butterflies that enable them to select the best host plant for their larvae – and avoid deadly ones.

Biologist Adriana Briscoe and colleagues found that females of the Heliconius species express gustatory, or taste, when choosing a host on which to lay their eggs. Many plants defend themselves by producing , so it's vital to their 's survival that the butterflies pick the right kind. Heliconius females have 80 taste organs called sensilla on their forelegs that they use to sample potential , while male butterflies have none.

"This study is important for understanding the co-evolution of butterfly species and their host plants, uncovers a new set of genes critical to the species' survival, and reveals that female butterfly behavior shapes the hereditary makeup of butterflies," said Briscoe, professor of ecology & evolutionary biology and lead author of the paper, which will be published online July 11 in PLOS Genetics.

Heliconius females choose young, robust passionflower vines to host their larvae. They're so selective that they inspect a number of vines multiple times daily for other butterfly larvae and deficient leaves that are not healthy enough to sustain larvae or produce toxic chemicals before deciding on which specific vine to lay their eggs. Healthy passionflower vines are a limited commodity indigenous to rainforests in Mexico, Central America and South America.

Briscoe and her team have published other studies on butterflies, including a 2010 one in which they found that butterfly species with a duplicate gene allowing them to see ultraviolet colors also have ultraviolet-yellow pigment on their wings, helping them identify appropriate mates in a timely manner.

Explore further: Study pumps up the volume on understanding of marine invertebrate hearing

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

An eye gene colors butterfly wings red

Jul 21, 2011

Red may mean STOP or I LOVE YOU! A red splash on a toxic butterfly's wing screams DON'T EAT ME! In nature, one toxic butterfly species may mimic the wing pattern of another toxic species in the area. By ...

Recommended for you

Ninety-eight new beetle species discovered in Indonesia

10 hours ago

Ninety-eight new species of the beetle genus Trigonopterus have been described from Java, Bali and other Indonesian islands. Museum scientists from Germany and their local counterparts used an innovative approa ...

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

extinct
not rated yet Jul 11, 2013
if this machine (the butterfly) had been designed by a scientist in a lab, it would be hailed as the latest in high-tech bioengineering and yachts-a-plenty would be bought from the corporate profits, but since it's only designed by Mother Nature for free, nobody was interested enough to comment here except me. priorities...

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.