Butterfly genes mostly unchanged through 250 million years of evolution

Butterfly genes mostly unchanged through 250 million years of evolution
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Arisingly, the genomes of butterflies and moths have experienced minimal alterations since more than 250 million years ago.

Genomes change over time as a key feature of evolution, owing to diverse processes that add genetic diversity to populations. These adjustments are required for organisms to adapt to changing habitats, live, and reproduce.

This remarkable revelation comes from the study of over 200 butterfly and moth genomes.

This extensive analysis provided insights into their biology, evolution, and diversity. 

Despite the astounding color, size, and shape diversity across over 160,000 species, the study authors were startled to discover genomic stability.

Researchers from the Wellcome Sanger Institute and the University of Edinburgh undertook this study to understand these ethereal beings' evolutionary history better.

Slight alterations identified in the genome

Butterflies and moths are classified as Lepidoptera, a varied group of insects.  

In this latest work, scientists sought to understand the processes that govern the evolution of chromosomes within this group.

The investigation revealed 32 ancient chromosomal blocks known as Merian elements, which have been the architectural blueprint for these species for millennia.

This building block has “remained intact across most butterfly and moth species since their last common ancestor over 250 million years ago.”

In some species, slight alterations were identified, namely the merger of tiny autosomes with the sex chromosomes.

Some species have broken these genetic norms

Yet, amidst this uniformity, the researchers uncovered outliers. Species like the blue and cabbage white butterflies have broken these genetic norms, dramatically reshuffling their genomes.

“The chromosomes of most butterflies and moths living today can be traced directly back to the 32 ancestral Merian elements present 250 million years ago. It is striking that despite species diversifying extensively, their chromosomes have remained remarkably intact,” said Charlotte Wright, first author of the study at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, in the press release.

Wright added: “This challenges the idea that stable chromosomes may limit species diversification. Indeed, this feature might be a base for building diversity. We hope to find clues in rare groups that have evaded these rules.”

This study is part of a grander vision:  the Darwin Tree of Life Project, which aims to sequence the DNA of 70,000 species in Britain and Ireland. This effort contributes to the overarching Earth BioGenome Project, which aims to sequence the DNA of all 1.6 million identified species on Earth.

The knowledge gained from these genome-based projects holds immense importance for conservation endeavors. 

Such insights have the potential to formulate focused strategies, assess and maintain ecosystem health, adapt to the influence of climate change, and integrate genetic data into more extensive conservation initiatives.

The findings have been published in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution.

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