Insect migrations have genetic links, study finds

Researchers have suggested a genetic link to insect migration and this link has been established through a study of migratory and non-migratory hoverflies.

Researchers at University of Exeter and others identified more than 1,500 genetic differences when they analysed the hoverflies.

Each autumn, billions of migratory hoverflies leave northern Europe and make a long-distance journey south. Their journey takes them through the Pyrenees where they become concentrated through high mountain passes. For the study, researchers captured migrating insects as they flew through a mountain pass, and sequenced active genes to identify which determine migratory behaviour. This genetic information was then compared to that of non-migrating summer hoverflies.

Researchers are surprised by the “remarkable range of roles these genes play”.

When the researchers started ordering these genes by function, they discovered suites of genes were being activated in concert: insulin signalling for longevity, pathways for immunity, and those leading to octopamine production, the insect equivalent of the fight or flight hormone adrenaline, for long-distance flight.

The work provides a powerful genomic resource and theoretical framework to direct future studies into the evolution of migration.

Dr Karl Wotton said: “It is an exciting time to be studying the genetics of migration.

“Our research has already indicated several genes that have previously been associated with migration in butterflies, suggesting the existence of a shared ‘migratory gene package’ that controls migration across multiple animals.”

The paper, published in the journal Molecular Ecology, is entitled: “Genome-wide transcriptomic changes reveal the genetic pathways involved in insect migration.”

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