The evolutionary possibilities of butterfly patterning

Friday, 14 July 2017

Speckled wood butterfly-Casper Breuker

We’ve most likely all seen a butterfly before in our gardens or while walking and admired their beautiful patterns. However, have you ever wondered what their embryos look like and how their development is regulated?

14 July – 6 August is the Big Butterfly Count 2017, a nationwide survey aimed at helping assess the health of our environment. It was launched in 2010 and has rapidly become the world's biggest survey of butterflies. Over 36,000 people took part in 2016, counting almost 400,000 individual butterflies and day-flying moths across the UK.

At Oxford Brookes University, Senior Lecturer in Biology Dr Casper Breuker has been researching the evolutionary development of butterflies for almost 20 years and he is at the forefront of research into butterfly embryology, using mainly the Speckled Wood butterfly.

Dr Breuker is one of the recipients of the University’s Research Excellence Awards. The Awards were launched last year as part of Oxford Brookes’ commitment to supporting research-active academics and in supporting the aims of the Research and Knowledge Exchange Strategy 2016-2020.

The funding is providing Dr Breuker with greater research time and a research assistant to work on an international collaboration with the University of Cologne, Germany, on butterfly embryogenesis.

He talks about this project.

A key aspect of butterfly embryogenesis is patterning of the embryo along the main body axes; head to tail (i.e. anterior-posterior (AP), and back to front - i.e. dorsal-ventral (DV)).

The gene regulatory networks involved (GRNs), in particular that of DV patterning are among the best characterised in insect developmental biology. Comparative work involving characterising DV patterning in a variety of insect species has been instrumental in revealing how embryonic GRNs can evolve. This work has been led by Professor Siegfried Roth from the University of Cologne  - one of the most renowned experts in the field of developmental biology.

The work has shown that butterflies are very different compared to other insects in terms of maternal regulation of embryonic AP patterning and embryonic gene expression patterns.

Dr Casper Breuker, Senior Lecturer in Biology, Oxford Brookes University

In my lab, I have recently been focussing on butterfly AP patterning; the work has shown that butterflies are very different compared to other insects in terms of maternal regulation of embryonic AP patterning and embryonic gene expression patterns.

These findings have gained considerable interest and in particular the finding that butterflies are also very unusual in that mothers are very precise in outlining exactly where the embryo will form in an egg after that egg has been fertilized. Such specification constitutes in fact one of the most complex and divergent maternal RNA localisation patterns ever observed, which differs significantly from other insects and which is likely to affect how DV patterning is regulated.

With the resources generated for butterflies in my lab and the preliminary work published recently, we have a unique opportunity to establish this timely collaboration with Professor Roth and investigate what may actually prove to be most divergent of insect DV patterning mechanisms yet and therefore investigate the evolutionary possibilities of the DV GRN.

The collaborative project will be entitled All back to front? Dorsal-ventral patterning in butterflies and is expect to be completed by the end of 2017.

Keep reading the University’s  news pages for further information on the recipients of the Research Excellence Awards.

Find out more about Dr Casper Breuker and his research online in his profile.