Color patterns are one of nature's most dynamically rich and important signals of communication among plants and animals. In nature, these colors are produced by either pigments or structures that reflect different wavelengths of light. This project leverages the dramatic diversity in butterfly wing color patterns to study the biological basis of pattern development. The relative simplicity and the accessibility of butterfly wings make them attractive model systems for the study of pattern formation. Using a combination of genome sequencing, microscopy and gene-editing, the project will identify the genes involved in the formation of complex color patterns. These results will provide valuable insights into basic biological processes that control cell and tissue development. The research will provide hands-on training for undergraduate and graduate students in molecular and computational biology methods. Through "Butterfly Roadshows" and other outreach events, the researchers will engage K-6 students with immersive activities that explore butterfly diversity using origami paper microscopes, which students can continue to use in their own backyards. Collectively, the outcomes of this research program will represent a major milestone for understanding the genetic and developmental processes that orchestrate color patterning and how complex, biologically-important color-based signals are generated in nature.

The aim of this project is to explore the developmental genetics of structural coloration using butterfly wing patterns as a model system. Butterfly wings form large arrays of differentiating epithelial cells that determine scale fate, and ultimately, the final color pattern of the wing. Colors are the result of pigments and/or structures of individual wing scales that reflect different wavelengths of light. Unlike pigment-based colors, structural colors result from three-dimensional nanostructures that manipulate the behavior of light. Although the developmental and genetic basis of pigment-based variation is well understood in a wide array of organisms, little is known about the generative processes responsible for structural coloration. The natural arrangements of butterfly scale types in space, their sexual dimorphism, and the ability to assay position specific gene expression patterns across the wing throughout development provides an unparalleled opportunity to identify the genes and developmental processes responsible for patterning and activating highly specialized cellular states. Through a combination of transcriptome sequencing (RNA-seq), in situ hybridizations, immunofluorescence, electroporation and CRISPR genome editing, this study aspires to provide a direct connection between changes in gene networks and cytostructural variation. The project team members will also implement a multifaceted outreach and educational program that will (1) establish a vibrant Student Training Program, (2) actively recruit students from underrepresented groups, and (3) develop a public outreach program that engages students in hands-on, inquiry-based discovery. These efforts by the project team will ensure the impacts extend well beyond the specific research objectives.

This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Integrative Organismal Systems (IOS)
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Paulyn Cartwright
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Mississippi State University
Mississippi State
United States
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