Background: A fundamental challenge of evolutionary and developmental biology is understanding how new characters arise and change. The recently derived eyespots on butterfly wings vary extensively in number and pattern between species and play important roles in predator avoidance. Eyespots form through the activity of inductive organizers (foci) at the center of developing eyespot fields. Foci are the proposed source of a morphogen, the levels of which determine the color of surrounding wing scale cells. However, it is unknown how reception of the focal signal translates into rings of different-colored scales, nor how different color schemes arise in different species.
Results: We have identified several transcription factors, including butterfly homologs of the Drosophila Engrailed/Invected and Spalt proteins, that are deployed in concentric territories corresponding to the future rings of pigmented scales that compose the adult eyespot. We have isolated a new Bicyclus anynana wing pattern mutant, Goldeneye, in which the scales of one inner color ring become the color of a different ring. These changes correlate with shifts in transcription factor expression, suggesting that Goldeneye affects an early regulatory step in eyespot color patterning. In different butterfly species, the same transcription factors are expressed in eyespot fields, but in different relative spatial domains that correlate with divergent eyespot color schemes.
Conclusions: Our results suggest that signaling from the focus induces nested rings of regulatory gene expression that subsequently control the final color pattern. Furthermore, the remarkably plastic regulatory interactions downstream of focal signaling have facilitated the evolution of eyespot diversity.