Magazine article Science News

40 Genes Aid in Monarch Migration: Activity Differs between Southbound, Homebody Butterflies

Magazine article Science News

40 Genes Aid in Monarch Migration: Activity Differs between Southbound, Homebody Butterflies

Article excerpt

Come fall, monarch butterflies feel the need for a change in latitude. A new study shows that changes in the activity of a suite of genes in the butterflies' brains help the insects find their way to over-wintering grounds in Mexico.

Steven Reppert, a neurobiologist from the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester, leads a team of scientists on an ongoing mission to uncover the monarch's migratory signals. The team describes a new genetic analysis of stationary summer monarchs and fall migratory monarchs in the March 31 BMC Biology.

At least 40 genes are involved in keeping the monarchs Mexico-bound once they head out, Reppert and his colleagues report. The team analyzed more than 9,000 of the monarch butterfly's genes, about half of the genes in its genome.

Each fall, hundreds of millions of monarchs in the eastern United States and Canada begin flying south for the winter and forego reproduction. The butterflies navigate with internal clocks and use the sun as a compass to find their way to oyamel fir forests in central Mexico. No one knows what environmental signals flip the switch that causes butterflies to start migrating.

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Some of these 40 genes may be involved in the flip, but the new study didn't address that question.

Reppert and his colleagues collected monarch butterflies in the summer and fall. As expected, stationary summer butterflies have high levels of a reproductive chemical called juvenile hormone, while migratory fall butterflies are deficient in the hormone. …

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