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See Inside October 2011

What Is It?

Disguise genes



Courtesy of Arnaud Martin University of California, Irvine

Many animals fool predators by changing colors to mimic their surroundings or the traits of other species. Two teams recently identified genes that control this process in a large genus of tropical butterflies known as Heliconius. Several Heliconius species evolved a similar array of patterns over thousands of years despite their varying geographic locations. One study found 18 genes regulate seven different wing patterns, which warn birds of the butterflies’ toxicity. Another study described a single gene’s control of the red patterns on many species (including H. erato, magnified 15 times at the right).  Arnaud Martin, a University of California, Irvine, graduate student involved in this research, says the work helps to explain “how changes in DNA can generate new features such as a bigger brain, an oppositional thumb [or] a colorful butterfly.”

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