Gene expression underlying adaptive variation in Heliconius wing patterns: Non-modular regulation of overlapping cinnabar and vermilion prepatterns

Robert D. Reed, W. Owen McMillan, Lisa M Nagy

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

51 Scopus citations


Geographical variation in the mimetic wing patterns of the butterfly Heliconius erato is a textbook example of adaptive polymorphism; however, little is known about how this variation is controlled developmentally. Using microarrays and qPCR, we identified and compared expression of candidate genes potentially involved with a red/yellow forewing band polymorphism in H. erato. We found that transcripts encoding the pigment synthesis enzymes cinnabar and vermilion showed pattern- and polymorphism-related expression patterns, respectively. cinnabar expression was associated with the forewing band regardless of pigment colour, providing the first gene expression pattern known to be correlated with a major Heliconius colour pattern. In contrast, vermilion expression changed spatially over time in red-banded butterflies, but was not expressed at detectable levels in yellow-banded butterflies, suggesting that regulation of this gene may be involved with the red/yellow polymorphism. Furthermore, we found that the yellow pigment, 3-hydroxykynurenine, is incorporated into wing scales from the haemolymph rather than being synthesized in situ. We propose that some aspects of Heliconius colour patterns are determined by spatio-temporal overlap of pigment gene transcription prepatterns and speculate that evolutionary changes in vermilion regulation may in part underlie an adaptive colour pattern polymorphism.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)37-45
Number of pages9
JournalProceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1630
Publication statusPublished - Jan 7 2008



  • Cinnabar
  • Colour patterns
  • Evo-devo
  • Heliconius
  • Pigmentation
  • Vermillion

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)
  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences (miscellaneous)

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