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$1.5 million NSF CAREER Award granted for study of plasticity, genetic and environmental impacts on butterflies

March 16, 2022 @ 11:43 a.m.

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Brian Counterman conducts research asking insightful questions about the environment, genetics and mating preferences impacting the Dogface Butterfly. He is the recipient of a National Science Foundation (NSF) CAREER Award for $1,565,641 for “Physiological genomics of sexually dimorphic developmental plasticity on butterfly wings.” His research will also help inspire the next generation of scientists currently in Alabama middle schools through outreach programs.

Plastic Response

Dogface Butterflies are native to the Black Belt Prairie region and have areas on their wings with distinct pink, yellow and ultraviolet markings. 

Brian Counterman, an assistant professor in the Department of Biological Sciences in the College of Sciences and Mathematics (COSAM), researches genetic and genomic changes specifically in butterflies. 

“In fall, we noticed that the color markings on the Dogface Butterfly were extremely pink,” Counterman said. “The environment induces color changes of the pigment seen on butterfly wings.”

The changes are not just seen in the pigment coloration. 

“Pigmentation changes occur with seasonality, but what was really interesting is that these butterflies are also experiencing structural or cell-centric changes that cause a loss of the ultraviolet colors on their wings.”

Counterman’s research focuses on the genetics of plastic responses or plasticity, which is how the environment can influence development.

“We compare which genes in the butterflies are changing and control how much pink, yellow and ultraviolet is visible on the butterfly wings,” Counterman added. 

Counterman teaches a class on development plasticity for undergraduate and graduate students at Auburn University. He discusses the importance of how the environment is impacting species in this course. 

Genetic Mapping

“In the laboratory, we will create lines from local populations so that we can genetically map what causes the wing color differences,” Counterman said.

He anticipates that through artificial selection over several generations they will make colonies of pink colored butterflies. 

“After several generations of artificial selection, we will use CRISPR to edit genes to change the pink and ultraviolet colors on the butterfly wings,” Counterman said. 

In addition to pigmentation, Counterman will be able to learn if the butterflies prefer to mate with butterflies with the same color differentiation or not. 

Outreach Component

The outreach component of Counterman’s grant embodies the land-grant mission of Auburn University.

Counterman will reach out to middle school teachers and offer an interactive summer camp giving them an opportunity with hands-on research.

“These teachers will discuss hypothesis-driven research and gain insight on how to conduct this research with their students in the classroom,” Counterman said.

He then will send each teacher three experiments in the fall. Each student will receive an origami-based microscope as well as additional ones for the classroom.

Through these experiments, students will be able to learn about butterfly wing scales. 

“Student will be able to then apply the information they learned and use the microscopes for projects for state science fairs,” Counterman added. 

Counterman will also share information about his research at the annual Destination STEM event hosted by COSAM’s Office of Outreach. Additionally, students will be able to attend a capstone event and teachers will be able to share what their students learned through a poster presentation.

Counterman’s NSF CAREER Award will help to share a passion for science with middle school students in the state of Alabama and create the next generation of STEM leaders. 

BY MARIA GEBHARDT

Brian Counterman displays butterfly specimens.

Brian Counterman

Categories: Energy & the Environment, Life Sciences


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