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Mechanisms of macroevolution: polyphagous plasticity in butterfly larvae revealed by RNA-Seq



Transcriptome studies of insect herbivory are still rare, yet studies in model systems have uncovered patterns of transcript regulation that appear to provide insights into how insect herbivores attain polyphagy, such as a general increase in expression breadth and regulation of ribosomal, digestion- and detoxification-related genes. We investigated the potential generality of these emerging patterns, in the Swedish comma, Polygonia c-album, which is a polyphagous, widely-distributed butterfly. Urtica dioica and Ribes uva-crispa are hosts of Pc-album, but Ribes represents a recent evolutionary shift onto a very divergent host. Utilizing the assembled transcriptome for read mapping, we assessed gene expression finding that caterpillar life-history (i.e. 2nd vs. 4th-instar regulation) had a limited influence on gene expression plasticity. In contrast, differential expression in response to host-plant identified genes encoding serine-type endopeptidases, membrane-associated proteins and transporters. Differential regulation of genes involved in nucleic acid binding was also observed suggesting that polyphagy involves large scale transcriptional changes. Additionally, transcripts coding for structural constituents of the cuticle were differentially expressed in caterpillars in response to their diet indicating that the insect cuticle may be a target for plant defence. Our results state that emerging patterns of transcript regulation from model species appear relevant in species when placed in an evolutionary context.