The role and basis of species interactions represent one of the central topics in biological research. Due to their high ecological and economical significance a lot of effort has especially been put into furthering the understanding of associations and adaptations between insects and their corresponding host plants. These adaptations are crucial for a species evolutionary fate since they can affect the exploitation of a specific resource (e.g. metabolization of plant tissue) and, thus, the fitness of multiple generations. The concept of modularity has become an increasingly important tool to understand and explain the emergence and development of host specific adaptations. Modules comprise discrete sets of interacting parts that are independent of other such units. In the context of this project, adaptations are considered as modules of coherent gene expression and its associated phenotypes.
Plants consist of a diverse and complex composition of various chemical compounds with only a portion being involved in the actual defensive mechanisms against herbivores. This chemical variation can now represent a challenge for polyphagous insects since it requires a flexible set of adaptations to cope with different host plant species.
The comma butterfly, Polygonia c-album, covers a wide range of different host species. Expressing all genes necessary to feed and survive on all potential hosts would probably be detrimental and costly. As opposed to this, previous studies showed that different modules of genes are activated in respect to a particular host. To further investigate these preliminary results, host switch experiments were performed, in which larvae of Polygonia c-album were switched to different host plant species (Urtica, Salix and Ribes) during the course of their development. Gene expression data from larval gut genes were combined with data (RNA and performance) from a previous project (more details on this can be found on the section “Resource Usage”) to compare and further investigate the exclusiveness of expression patterns and the degree of modularity in respect to a particular host. In an additional experiment (“selection experiment”), gene expression will also be monitored over multiple generations of individuals that were selected for increased performance on a particular host. In combination with further host switch experiments, this data will give information about the stability of host specific modules over time and also allows to test for the role of trade-offs for the development of host-specific adaptations.
This project will significantly contribute to a further understanding of the mechanisms and genetic basis underlying adaptations to specific environments (i.e. hosts) and, thus, to an increase in the knowledge and predictability of species associations and interaction dynamics. Moreover, the finding will also be used to further disentangle the impact of different phylogenetic relatedness and growth form of the hosts on larval performance and expression patterns.