Background: The characterization of the molecular changes that underlie the origin and diversification of morphological novelties is a key challenge in evolutionary developmental biology. The evolution of such traits is thought to rely largely on co-option of a toolkit of conserved developmental genes that typically perform multiple functions. Mutations that affect both a universal developmental process and the formation of a novelty might shed light onto the genetics of traits not represented in model systems. Here we describe three pleiotropic mutations with large effects on a novel trait, butterfly eyespots, and on a conserved stage of embryogenesis, segment polarity.
Results: We show that three mutations affecting eyespot size and/or colour composition in Bicyclus anynana butterflies occurred in the same locus, and that two of them are embryonic recessive lethal. Using surgical manipulations and analysis of gene expression patterns in developing wings, we demonstrate that the effects on eyespot morphology are due to changes in the epidermal response component of eyespot induction. Our analysis of morphology and of gene expression in mutant embryos shows that they have a typical segment polarity phenotype, consistent with the mutant locus encoding a negative regulator of Wingless signalling.
Conclusions: This study characterizes the segregation and developmental effects of alleles at a single locus that controls the morphology of a lineage-specific trait (butterfly eyespots) and a conserved process (embryonic segment polarity and, specifically, the regulation of Wingless signalling). Because no gene with such function was found in the orthologous, highly syntenic genomic regions of two other lepidopterans, we hypothesize that our locus is a yet undescribed, possibly lineage-specific, negative regulator of the conserved Wnt/Wg pathway. Moreover, the fact that this locus interferes with multiple aspects of eyespot morphology and maps to a genomic region containing key wing pattern loci in different other butterfly species suggests it might correspond to a 'hotspot' locus in the diversification of this novel trait.