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Archive - Nov 26, 2011 - Page

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Monarch Butterfly Genome May Reveal Secrets of Epic Migration

Each fall millions of monarch butterflies from across the eastern United States use a time-compensated sun compass to direct their navigation south, traveling up to 2,000 miles to an overwintering site in a specific grove of fir trees in central Mexico. Scientists have long been fascinated by the biological mechanisms that allow successive generations of these delicate creatures to traverse such long distances to a small region roughly 300 square miles in size. To unlock the genetic and regulatory elements important for this remarkable journey, neurobiologists at the University of Massachusetts Medical School (UMMS) are the first to sequence and analyze the monarch butterfly genome. "Migratory monarchs are at least two generations removed from those that made the journey the previous fall," said Dr. Steven M. Reppert, professor and chair of neurobiology and senior author of the study. "They have never been to the overwintering sites before, and have no relatives to follow on their way. There must be a genetic program underlying the butterflies' migratory behavior. We want to know what that program is, and how it works." In a paper featured as the cover article of the November 23, 2011 issue of Cell, Dr. Reppert and UMMS colleagues Dr. Shuai Zhan, and Dr. Christine Merlin, along with collaborator Dr. Jeffrey L. Boore, CEO of Genome Project Solutions in Hercules, California, describe how next-generation sequencing technology was used to generate a draft 273 Mb genome of the migratory monarch. Analysis of the combined genetic assembly revealed an estimated set of 16,866 protein-coding genes, comprising several gene families likely involved in major aspects of the monarch's seasonal migration. The novel insights gained by Dr.