Non-technical description

This Research Infrastructure Improvement Track-2 Focused EPSCoR Collaboration (RII Track-2 FEC) is a joint project between the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras and Mississippi State University that addresses a fundamental question in biology: How do changes in DNA result in changes in phenotype? The study leverages morphological diversity in butterfly populations and cutting-edge DNA sequencing methods to explore how genetic changes impact wing pattern development. The goals are to understand what type of genomic changes and molecular mechanisms underlie biological diversity and prepare a diverse group of skilled researchers, innovators, and educators. Educational activities include modernizing undergraduate biology laboratory courses, student exchanges between PR and MS, genome to phenome workshops and other professional development workshops for early career faculty and K-12 teachers, and research experience opportunities for K-12 teachers and students. The team members will develop a bilingual (English and Spanish) curriculum for use in secondary schools focused on genomics and gene expression and regulation and explain concepts of natural diversity, adaptation, and evolution that aligns with Next Generation Science Standards and jurisdictional Department of Education Science Standards.

Technical description

This collaborative program between the University of Puerto Rico-Rio Piedras and Mississippi State University aims to characterize the genomic changes and molecular mechanisms responsible for the evolution of morphological diversity. Butterfly wing color patterns are utilized as a model system to build an integrative understanding of genotype-to-phenotype relationships by addressing the following questions: 1) What are the DNA changes associated with wing pattern divergence? 2) What is the gene regulatory network underlying divergent color pattern development? and 3), What do these changes tell us about the nature of morphological diversification? Through DNA sequencing, chromatin profiling, and genome editing this study offers an in-depth cause-effect analysis of the genetic changes that drive morphological divergence in neotropical, Heliconius butterflies. This study bridges the gap between population genetics, epigenetics, gene regulation, and pattern development to disentangle the genomic logic of developmental evolution and better understand the origin of morphological diversity. Three early career faculty participating in this project will be mentored by senior faculty and participate in research and teaching workshops. The project team members will work collaboratively to develop educational materials and training activities that span pre-college, undergraduate, and post-graduate levels of science education in Puerto Rico and Mississippi.

(Image taken from: NSF – Ecological Speciation)