The more-than-century-long challenge has involved a secret of the Heliconius butterfly, the orange, black, yellow, and red insect that hasn't easily communicated how all its radiant colors came to be.
For evolutionary biologists, and especially geneticists like Counterman, the butterflies--commonly called passion vine butterflies--make perfect research subjects for better understanding the important scientific question: How do organisms change to survive?
Over the past decade, the researcher in the university's biological sciences department has been part of an international team using field experiments, genetic mapping, population genetics, and phylogenetics to study the butterflies' biology and history.
A Duke University doctoral graduate in biology and evolutionary genetics, Counterman studied genetics of adaptation as part of his post-doctoral research at North Carolina State University. He joined the MSU faculty in 2009.
Passion vine butterflies are found throughout South and Central America. Through the years, scientists observed that Heliconius butterflies with certain red patterns survived in certain areas, while others didn't.
"There are very few cases that we know what traits determine if an organism will survive in nature," Counterman said, adding that he and a team of researchers recently uncovered the gene responsible for the different red wing patterns.
Their finds were featured in the July issue of Science magazine.
Counterman said the butterflies use red as a warning signal to birds and other predators that they are poisonous and should not be consumed.
"This is one of the first examples where we've found the genetic change that allowed (an organism) to live or die in nature," he observed, adding that finding the red gene was just the first step in understanding how they have survived.
Counterman and his team further analyzed the red gene to reconstruct when the different red patterns evolved, providing important clues into how rapidly new adaptations can arise and spread in populations that nearly encompass entire continents.
This research was showcased on the cover in a December issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States.
For scientists like Counterman, finding answers to these questions may give insight about how and why the diversity in the world evolved. And, there is still more to come.
Counterman now is part of a team sequencing the entire Heliconius genome--one of the first butterfly genomes--that should open the door to a new level of questioning into the biological causes for one of the most charismatic groups of organisms on earth.
While these studies involve one of nature's most delicate and enchanting creatures, they are part of a larger, serious inquiry that most humans consider at some point in their lives:
"How did the world get to where it is?" Counterman said recently, discussing his fascination with genetics and biology.
Robbie Ward | Newswise Science News
New photocatalyst speeds up the conversion of carbon dioxide into chemical resources
29.05.2017 | DGIST (Daegu Gyeongbuk Institute of Science and Technology)
Copper hydroxide nanoparticles provide protection against toxic oxygen radicals in cigarette smoke
29.05.2017 | Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz
The world's highest gain high power laser amplifier - by many orders of magnitude - has been developed in research led at the University of Strathclyde.
The researchers demonstrated the feasibility of using plasma to amplify short laser pulses of picojoule-level energy up to 100 millijoules, which is a 'gain'...
Staphylococcus aureus is a feared pathogen (MRSA, multi-resistant S. aureus) due to frequent resistances against many antibiotics, especially in hospital infections. Researchers at the Paul-Ehrlich-Institut have identified immunological processes that prevent a successful immune response directed against the pathogenic agent. The delivery of bacterial proteins with RNA adjuvant or messenger RNA (mRNA) into immune cells allows the re-direction of the immune response towards an active defense against S. aureus. This could be of significant importance for the development of an effective vaccine. PLOS Pathogens has published these research results online on 25 May 2017.
Staphylococcus aureus (S. aureus) is a bacterium that colonizes by far more than half of the skin and the mucosa of adults, usually without causing infections....
Physicists from the University of Würzburg are capable of generating identical looking single light particles at the push of a button. Two new studies now demonstrate the potential this method holds.
The quantum computer has fuelled the imagination of scientists for decades: It is based on fundamentally different phenomena than a conventional computer....
An international team of physicists has monitored the scattering behaviour of electrons in a non-conducting material in real-time. Their insights could be beneficial for radiotherapy.
We can refer to electrons in non-conducting materials as ‘sluggish’. Typically, they remain fixed in a location, deep inside an atomic composite. It is hence...
Two-dimensional magnetic structures are regarded as a promising material for new types of data storage, since the magnetic properties of individual molecular building blocks can be investigated and modified. For the first time, researchers have now produced a wafer-thin ferrimagnet, in which molecules with different magnetic centers arrange themselves on a gold surface to form a checkerboard pattern. Scientists at the Swiss Nanoscience Institute at the University of Basel and the Paul Scherrer Institute published their findings in the journal Nature Communications.
Ferrimagnets are composed of two centers which are magnetized at different strengths and point in opposing directions. Two-dimensional, quasi-flat ferrimagnets...
24.05.2017 | Event News
23.05.2017 | Event News
22.05.2017 | Event News
29.05.2017 | Earth Sciences
29.05.2017 | Life Sciences
29.05.2017 | Physics and Astronomy