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Butterflies, Genetics and Aerobic Activity

NSF Award:

Physiological genomics of a polymorphic locus affecting dispersal and ecological dynamics  (Pennsylvania State Univ University Park)

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Researchers at Pennsylvania State University have found that butterflies carrying different versions of a gene affecting the hypoxia inducible pathway (HIF) have two-fold differences in the complexity of their tracheae, the tubes that deliver oxygen to their tissues. The HIF pathway is the main mechanism animals use to sense internal oxygen availability. Butterflies with more tracheae have greater flight capacity and other behavioral differences that, in turn, affect dispersal and population growth within isolated habitat patches.

Genetic variations affecting HIF pathway activity are important in animals and humans living at different elevations. The Penn State butterfly study is the first to reveal common and ecologically important variations in HIF pathway signaling in populations at sea level. Other types of organisms, including humans, may also experience such variation. Given the importance of oxygen and circulation in human health, this study may provide insight for individual differences in both healthy athletic performance and cardiovascular disease susceptibility.

Knowing that subtle genetic differences in the HIF pathway can have strong effects on aerobic capacity may provide important new directions for studying variability in human physiology. Differences in heart, circulatory and lung physiology may arise from the same kind of genetic variation discovered in butterflies. 

Previous studies of genetic differences affecting human hypoxia signaling have focused on rare mutations that cause radical effects such as vascularized tumors. However, given the wide, and largely unexplained, variation in aerobic athletic capacity of healthy humans, it is possible that common genetic variants cause physiological differences in oxygen transport within the body.

Images (1 of )

  • a glanville fritillary butterfly
  • undergraduate measures a butterfly's metabolic rate
  • undergraduate collects butterflies in spain
A Glanville Fritillary butterfly.
J.H. Marden, Pennsylvania State University
Measuring a butterfly's metabolic rate.
J.H. Marden, Pennsylvania State University
Collecting butterflies in Spain.
J.H. Marden, Pennsylvania State University

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