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article imageNew insight on butterfly metamorphosis

By Tim Sandle     Feb 6, 2014 in Science
Scientists sequencing the microbial genome of butterfly bacteria have unearthed a surprising role played by the bacteria during the transformation of a caterpillar into a butterfly.
The University of Colorado Boulder study was led by doctoral student Tobin Hammer. The study has shown the internal microbial make-up of the red postman butterfly changed dramatically from caterpillar to pupa to adult. This is the first time researchers have ever sequenced the entire ‘microbiome’ (totality of microorganisms) of a butterfly.
For the study, the research team used DNA sequencing methods to characterize bacterial communities inhabiting caterpillars, pupae and adults of Heliconius erato, commonly known as the red postman butterfly. The red postman is an abundant tropical butterfly found in Central and South America.
What is special about the red postman butterfly is that it is the only known species that feeds on pollen (a rich source of amino acids). Most butterflies feed on nectar (essentially sugar water). Butterflies that feed on nectar have short lifespans lasting only days or weeks. However, the red postman can digest and then extract nutrients from pollen grains, which expands its lifespan by several months. Scientists think that the bacteria inside the butterfly play a key role in the digestion of pollen.
The results showed the internal bacterial diversity of the red postman was halved when it morphed from the caterpillar to the chrysalis, or pupal stage, and then doubled after the pupae turned into active adult butterflies. The study is important because communities of bacteria inhabiting other insects have been shown to affect nutrition, digestion, and defense from predators, parasites and pathogens.
One reason for the study is because butterflies are ecologically and scientifically important; however, almost nothing had previously been known about what kind of internal microbes they have and how they change over the butterfly life cycle. The main question remaining is what these microbes are doing inside caterpillars and butterflies to influence their health and behaviour?
The results of the study have been published in the journal PLOS ONE, in a research paper titled “Metamorphosis of a Butterfly-Associated Bacterial Community”.
More about Butterfly, metamorphosis, Caterpillar, red postman butterfly, nectar
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