Background: Butterflies and moths are emerging as model organisms in genetics and evolutionary studies. The family Hesperiidae (skippers) was traditionally viewed as a sister to other butterflies based on its moth-like morphology and darting flight habits with fast wing beats. However, DNA studies suggest that the family Papilionidae (swallowtails) may be the sister to other butterflies including skippers. The moth-like features and the controversial position of skippers in Lepidoptera phylogeny make them valuable targets for comparative genomics.
Results: We obtained the 310 Mb draft genome of the Clouded Skipper (Lerema accius) from a wild-caught specimen using a cost-effective strategy that overcomes the high (1.6 %) heterozygosity problem. Comparative analysis of Lerema accius and the highly heterozygous genome of Papilio glaucus revealed differences in patterns of SNP distribution, but similarities in functions of genes that are enriched in non-synonymous SNPs. Comparison of Lepidoptera genomes revealed possible molecular bases for unique traits of skippers: a duplication of electron transport chain components could result in efficient energy supply for their rapid flight; a diversified family of predicted cellulases might allow them to feed on cellulose-enriched grasses; an expansion of pheromone-binding proteins and enzymes for pheromone synthesis implies a more efficient mate-recognition system, which compensates for the lack of clear visual cues due to the similarities in wing colors and patterns of many species of skippers. Phylogenetic analysis of several Lepidoptera genomes suggested that the position of Hesperiidae remains uncertain as the tree topology varied depending on the evolutionary model.
Conclusion: Completion of the first genome from the family Hesperiidae allowed comparative analyses with other Lepidoptera that revealed potential genetic bases for the unique phenotypic traits of skippers. This work lays the foundation for future experimental studies of skippers and provides a rich dataset for comparative genomics and phylogenetic studies of Lepidoptera.