Exactly how this happens, we do not know. A research team at Stockholm University is now going to try to find out by combining ecology with molecular biology.

Photo: Robert Markus

By studying fruit flies and the butterfly Green-veined White, the researchers are hoping to be able to explain how different genes interact in order to produce a complete and adapted organism with a life cycle that fits the local natural conditions, including the often dramatic variations in these conditions throughout the year. The project named ”Insect life cycle genomics and adaptation in the wild” recently received SEK 30 million from The Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation.

Even if flies and butterflies are very different insects, and very different from us humans, there are many deep similarities. We share most of our genes with other multicellular organisms, and many of the processes occurring inside the cells are the same. Sören Nylin, who leads the research team, thus believes that the project could ultimately lead to knowledge that is not only relevant to insects, but to all multicellular organisms, including us humans.

The techniques for studying genes have made enormous progress in recent years. It is now relatively quick to make an extensive mapping of a species’ entire genome, or to find out exactly what genes are used in a specific situation. The tools thus exist, but interpreting the results is not always as simple. Each individual gene does not usually cause only one feature or a specific appearance; it is more likely a matter of a complex interplay between several different genes or a mixture of heritage and environment. The results from organisms studied in a laboratory environment are usually a simplification of reality, as changes in the natural environment are not taken into account. Understanding adaptation in nature is thus a great challenge. By combining ecology and molecular biology, the research team is now about to take on this challenge. The ecology of the Green-veined White has been studied intensively, but the molecular tools have so far been limited. The fruit fly has long been used as a model for genetic and molecular studies, and studying both systems could lead to new ideas and approaches for understanding how the adaptation happens. “It gives us the opportunity to genetically compare butterfly specimens that we know are adapted to different ecological situations, and when we find genes that are suspected to be involved in this adaptation, we can examine their effects in the fruit fly”, says Sören Nylin.
Stockholm University has two prominent fields of insect research, one in ecology and evolutionary biology, and the other in physiology, development and molecular biology. Due to different traditions, there has previously been no collaboration between the two fields. For this reason, Ylva Engström, Professor of Molecular Biology, took the initiative to create a network, Insect Science @ SU. In 2009, insect researchers from several departments at Tovetorp Zoological Research Station gathered for a first meeting. The meetings continued, and discussions about the project and collaborations commenced.
One of the adaptations that will be studied is diapause, a condition that enables insects to halt their own development until the living conditions are more favourable, so that they can survive the winter and reproduce the following year. When they “wake up”, it is as if the period of diapause never happened, as if time has been standing still. “If we can understand what controls this, we will be one step closer to being able to explain the process that occurs with aging”, says Dick Nässel, Professor of Functional Morphology.

Text: Lina Enell