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Researchers witness natural selection at work in dramatic comeback of male butterflies

Berkeley -- An international team of researchers has documented a remarkable example of natural selection in a tropical butterfly species that fought back - genetically speaking - against a highly invasive, male-killing bacteria.

Within 10 generations that spanned less than a year, the proportion of males of the Hypolimnas bolina butterfly on the South Pacific island of Savaii jumped from a meager 1 percent of the population to about 39 percent. The researchers considered this a stunning comeback and credited it to the rise of a suppressor gene that holds in check the Wolbachia bacteria, which is passed down from the mother and selectively kills males before they have a chance to hatch.

"To my knowledge, this is the fastest evolutionary change that has ever been observed," said Sylvain Charlat, lead author of the study and a post-doctoral researcher with joint appointments at the University of California, Berkeley, and University College London. "This study shows that when a population experiences very intense selective pressures, such as an extremely skewed sex ratio, evolution can happen very fast."

The researchers' findings are described in the July 13 issue of the journal Science.

Charlat pointed out that, unlike mutations that govern such traits as wing color or antennae length, a genetic change that affects the sex ratio of a population has a very wide impact on the biology of the species.

It is not yet clear whether the suppressor gene emerged from a chance mutation from within the local population, or if it was introduced by migratory Southeast Asian butterflies in which the mutation had already been established.

"We'll likely know more in three years' time when the exact location of the suppressor gene is identified," said Charlat. "But regardless of which of the two sources of the suppressor gene is correct, natural selection is the next step. The suppressor gene allows infected females to prod
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Contact: Sarah Yang
scyang@berkeley.edu
510-643-7741
University of California - Berkeley
12-Jul-2007


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