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Contrasting modes of evolution of the visual pigments in Heliconius butterflies.


The adult compound eyes of passion-vine butterflies in the genus Heliconius contain one more UV opsin than other butterflies. Together with an 11-cis-3-hydroxyretinal chromophore, their four opsin genes UVRh1, UVRh2, BRh, and LWRh produce four rhodopsins that are UV-, blue-, or long wavelength absorbing. One of the Heliconius UV opsin genes, UVRh2, was found to have evolved under positive selection following recent gene duplication, using the branch-site test of selection. Using a more conservative test, the small-sample method, we confirm our prior finding of positive selection of UVRh2 and provide new statistical evidence of episodic evolution, that is, positive selection followed by purifying selection. We also newly note that one of the positively selected amino acid sites contains substitutions with known spectral tuning effects in avian ultraviolet- and violet-sensitive visual pigments. As this is one of a handful of described examples of positive selection of any specific gene in any butterfly where functional variation between copies has been characterized, we were interested in examining the molecular and physiological context of this adaptive event by examining the UV opsin genes in contrast to the other visual pigment genes. We cloned BRh and LWRh from 13 heliconiine species and UVRh1 and UVRh2 from Heliconius elevatus. In parallel, we performed in vivo epi-microspectrophotometric experiments to estimate the wavelength of peak absorbance, λ(max), of several rhodopsins in seven heliconiine species. In contrast to UVRh2, we found both physiological and statistical evidence consistent with purifying selection on UVRh1, BRh, and LWRh along the branch leading to the common ancestor of Heliconius. These results underscore the utility of combining molecular and physiological experiments in a comparative context for strengthening evidence for adaptive evolution at the molecular level.

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