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Homoploid hybrid speciation is the formation of a new hybrid species without change in chromosome number. So far, there has been a lack of direct molecular evidence for hybridization generating novel traits directly involved in animal speciation. Heliconius butterflies exhibit bright aposematic color patterns that also act as cues in assortative mating. Heliconius heurippa has been proposed as a hybrid species, and its color pattern can be recreated by introgression of the H. m. melpomene red band into the genetic background of the yellow banded H. cydno cordula. This hybrid color pattern is also involved in mate choice and leads to reproductive isolation between H. heurippa and its close relatives. Here, we provide molecular evidence for adaptive introgression by sequencing genes across the Heliconius red band locus and comparing them to unlinked wing patterning genes in H. melpomene, H. cydno, and H. heurippa. 670 SNPs distributed among 29 unlinked coding genes (25,847bp) showed H. heurippa was related to H. c. cordula or the three species were intermixed. In contrast, among 344 SNPs distributed among 13 genes in the red band region (18,629bp), most showed H. heurippa related with H. c. cordula, but a block of around 6,5kb located in the 39 of a putative kinesin gene grouped H. heurippa with H. m. melpomene, supporting the hybrid introgression hypothesis. Genealogical reconstruction showed that this introgression occurred after divergence of the parental species, perhaps around 0.43Mya. Expression of the kinesin gene is spatially restricted to the distal region of the forewing, suggesting a mechanism for pattern regulation. This gene therefore constitutes the first molecular evidence for adaptive introgression during hybrid speciation and is the first clear candidate for a Heliconius wing patterning locus.
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.