Fritillary butterflies preserve genetic diversity through interbreeding

Credit: Vladimir Lukhtanov
Credit: Vladimir Lukhtanov


The formation of hybrids organisms obtained after crossing genetically different forms is more widespread in nature previously thought. Usually, only closely related species can hybridize. For example, hybrids occur in some populations of Daphnia crustaceans from plankton. They significantly complicate the definition of the boundaries between different species. However, some cases are known when hybridization occurred between very distant relatives: for example, between Homo sapiens and Neanderthals, whose common ancestor lived about 800,000 years ago.

The researchers from St Petersburg University and the Zoological Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences have managed to detect the hybridization of even more distant species: fritillary butterflies M. didyma and M. acentria, living on the slopes of the popular Mount Hermon ski resort in northern Israel. Their common ancestor existed at least five million years ago modern humans and chimpanzees are about as far apart on the phylogenetic tree (six million years). To obtain this result the scientists performed whole-genome sequencing and analyzed 27 genomes of three species of fritillary butterflies.

It turned out that some specimens of small-numbered M. acentria sporadically interbreed with more common M. didyma, resulting in gene flow from M. didyma to M. acentria. In general, one of the reasons for the species extinction is precisely the loss of genetic diversity. The fact that acentria butterflies are 'fed' with genetic material through hybridisation with a distant congener could therefore be a factor of survival and further evolution for the acentria. Moreover, as the researchers note, introgressive hybridization is not total in this case. Only some specimens interbreed with another species. However, this is sufficient for the emergence of a stable gene flow. The researchers even managed to catch one butterfly that turned out to be an interspecific hybrid.

Elena Pazhenkova, the first author of the article, a doctoral student at St Petersburg University said, when we examined the morphology of M. acentria, we noticed that it resembled M. didyma. This was unexpected for us because these two species are distant relatives. Such coincidences are mostly the result of adaptation to similar environmental conditions. However, sometimes they occur as a result of introgressive hybridization. We have analyzed whole genomes, which showed a unidirectional gene flow from Didyma to acentria.

Vladimir Lukhtanov is a Principal Researcher at the Zoological Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences and a Professor at St Petersburg University.

He said, hybridization usually leads to the fusion of two species or to the appearance of infertile offspring, that is, to the dead-end of evolution. That is the dead-end of evolution. Until recently, it was therefore believed that such a scenario of enrichment of a species with new genetic material was in principle impossible. However, in recent years, more and more works have appeared that encourage scientists to take a different view on the processes of evolution of living beings.

Vladimir Lukhtanov said, it seems that we are at the stage of changing the scientific paradigm. Biologists have long been convinced that the evolution of living beings can be represented as a branching tree. This metaphor (Tree of Life) might not be entirely correct and might soon be discarded. Introgressive hybridization suggests that it might be more correct to represent evolution as Web of Life, in which the emerging new branches are horizontally linked to each other due to the gene exchange. Additionally, the fact that we have identified an understudied natural mechanism that makes it possible to maintain genetic diversity may be important for the development of a general strategy for the conservation of a wide variety of living organisms.

The research was published in the journal Molecular Ecology.

Journal Information: Elena A. Pazhenkova et al, Genomic introgression from a distant congener in the Levant fritillary butterfly, Melitaea acentria, Molecular Ecology (2021). DOI: 10.1111/mec.16085

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