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Eyes on the future

Jellyfish gene used in butterflies to study eyespot color patterns

News Staff Reporter
HARRY SCULL JR./Buffalo News
Antonia Monteiro carefully watches a butterfly as it feeds on a piece of banana.

HARRY SCULL JR./Buffalo News
Graduate student Diane M. Ramos, left, works in a lab at the University at Buffalo alongside Antonia Monteiro, an assistant professor of biology.

Marrying genetic material from a jellyfish and a butterfly, University at Buffalo biologists have created the first butterfly that expresses DNA from another species.

The scientists hope this transgenic butterfly can help them better understand how butterflies evolved to display such a variety of colors and shapes on their paper-thin wings.

That research could lead to breakthroughs in the study of how other creatures develop distinctive features, such as a tiger's stripes or a pheasant's plumage, but not any time soon.

"That's kind of a long way to go," said Antonia Monteiro, an assistant professor of biology at UB. Monteiro is senior author of a paper on the research published in the current issue of Proceedings of the Royal Society: Biological Sciences.

Monteiro; Jeffrey Marcus, a former postdoctoral researcher in the biology department; and Diane M. Ramos, a doctoral candidate in the department, conducted the research.

A native of Portugal who came to UB in 2002, Monteiro has been studying the evolution and development of butterflies since she was an undergraduate.

Butterflies use their wings and the intricate patterns of eyespots for camouflage, to attract a mate or to distract a predator from attacking their vital central organs.

In the recently completed first phase of the research, led by Marcus, the biologists injected the fluorescent green marker gene from the jellyfish into tiny African tropical butterfly eggs.

"We're trying to find out the function of certain genes that are expressed on the wing, particularly in the location of the eyespot patterns," Monteiro said.

The scientists inserted two genetic sequences into the eggs - one that contained the marker gene and a helper sequence to ensure the marker gene inserts into the genome of the butterfly.

Because the fluorescence cannot be detected under normal light, the researchers use a fluorescent microscope to detect the presence of the gene, a protein.

The UB researchers developed seven transgenic butterflies that show the marker gene.

Monteiro said a $240,000, two-year grant from the National Science Foundation supported the research.

Ramos is conducting the next phase of the research. She developed her own transgenic butterfly lines using a fluorescent gene.

Soon she will replace that marker gene with a gene that the researchers believe controls the color gold in the butterfly wings.

That new gene also responds to heat. Ramos will insert the gene into butterfly eggs and, later, use a laser to provide a local heat shock to activate the gene.

The laser at UB's Institute for Lasers, Photonics and Biophotonics is so accurate that it can heat just a patch of cells.

If this works, the laser will act like a tattoo artist's needle, creating golden eyespot patterns on the wings when the egg grows into a pupa and then a butterfly.

The UB researchers aren't close to applying their findings to vertebrates. Still, it's not hard for them to look into a butterfly's eyespots and see the future.


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