How and why new mating signals arise and spread through a population remain open questions in evolutionary biology. However, it has been difficult to study signaling traits from a genetic perspective since signals, and the receptors that enable their detection, are often complex physical and/or behavioral traits affected by many genes. Fireflies offer an ideal system to study signal evolution because of their conspicuous and highly variable mating signals. These include lighted signals that range from simple glows to complex flashes, and differ in color, from blue/green to orange. Importantly, the underlying genetic basis of the lighted signal and signal receptor are both simple: light production is controlled by a single enzyme (luciferase) and visual receptor sensitivity by a single family of receptors (opsins). This work will use Next Generation sequencing techniques to examine the evolution of opsins in relationship to signal color and environmental light conditions.
This work will offer an unprecedented look at the evolution of visual receptors in a nocturnal visual signaling system. Combined with ongoing work examining the evolution of the light signal, it will allow testing of hypotheses for the molecular evolution of genes underlying both signals and receptors. It will revolutionize the genetic resources for fireflies and has the potential to place fireflies at the forefront of signal evolution research. Research opportunities will be offered for undergraduate students and resources developed for K-9 education.