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Heliconius butterflies are an excellent system for understanding the genetic basis of phenotypic change. Here we document surprising diversity in the genetic control of a common phenotype. Two disjunct H. erato populations have each recruited the Cr and/or Sd loci that control similar yellow hindwing patterns, but the alleles involved partially complement one another indicating either multiple origins for the patterning alleles or developmental drift in genetic control of similar patterns. We show that in these H. erato populations cr and sd are epistatically interacting and that the parental origin of alleles can explain phenotypes of backcross individuals. In contrast, mimetic H. melpomene populations with identical phenotypes (H. m. rosina and H. m. amaryllis) do not show genetic complementation (F(1)s and F(2)s are phenotypically identical to parentals). Finally, we report hybrid female inviability in H. m. melpomene x H. m. rosina crosses (previously only female infertility had been reported) and presence of standing genetic variation for alternative color alleles at the Yb locus in true breeding H. melpomene melpomene populations (expressed when in a different genomic background) that could be an important source of variation for the evolution of novel phenotypes or a result of developmental drift. Although recent work has emphasized the simple genetic control of wing pattern in Heliconius, we show there is underlying complexity in the allelic variation and epistatic interactions between major patterning loci.
The evolutionary importance of hybridization and introgression has long been debated(1). Hybrids are usually rare and unfit, but even infrequent hybridization can aid adaptation by transferring beneficial traits between species. Here we use genomic tools to investigate introgression in Heliconius, a rapidly radiating genus of neotropical butterflies widely used in studies of ecology, behaviour, mimicry and speciation(2-5). We sequenced the genome of Heliconius melpomene and compared it with other taxa to investigate chromosomal evolution in Lepidoptera and gene flow among multiple Heliconius species and races. Among 12,669 predicted genes, biologically important expansions of families of chemosensory and Hox genes are particularly noteworthy. Chromosomal organization has remained broadly conserved since the Cretaceous period, when butterflies split from the Bombyx (silkmoth) lineage. Using genomic resequencing, we show hybrid exchange of genes between three co-mimics, Heliconius melpomene, Heliconius timareta and Heliconius elevatus, especially at two genomic regions that control mimicry pattern. We infer that closely related Heliconius species exchange protective colour-pattern genes promiscuously, implying that hybridization has an important role in adaptive radiation.