Clocks, cryptochromes and Monarch migrations
© BioMed Central Ltd 2009
Published: 18 June 2009
The annual migration of the Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) from eastern North America to central Mexico is one of nature's most inspiring spectacles. Recent studies including one in BMC Biology, have begun to dissect the molecular and neurogenetic basis for this most complex behavior.
Butterfly migration and the circadian clock
This remarkable feat represents the longest annual insect migration known and has become a focus of study for the circadian biologist Steven Reppert and his group at the University of Massachusetts in Worcester. In a series of papers over the past few years [2–4], they have confirmed that, like migrating birds, the Monarch depends on its circadian clock to find the right direction. It has a time-compensated sun compass, so if the clock is made arrhythmic (by placing the butterfly in constant bright light for a few days), or is phase-shifted by a few hours, the butterfly will lose its way, because it uses the time to tell it where the sun should be in the sky . To do this, Monarchs use sky-light spectral gradients and polarized ultraviolet (UV) light, for which they have dedicated photo-receptors. Consequently, they can orient themselves towards Mexico in the southwest under a variety of meteorological conditions [2–4].
The likely neuroanatomical position of the circadian clock in the butterfly brain has been defined using antibodies against clock proteins (for example, PERIOD (PER), TIMELESS (TIM) and CLOCK (CLK)), as a region of the dorsolateral protocerebrum called the pars lateralis (PL) . The polarized light receptor sits in the dorsal rim area of the retina, and, intriguingly, makes connections to the PL via nerve fibers that express CRY1 , a cryptochrome whose ortholog in Drosophila acts as a blue-light circadian photoreceptor . Indeed, both in cell lines and in vivo, CRY1 in the Monarch displays some of the features one might expect of a photoreceptor . CRY1-expressing fibers also connect the PL to the pars intercerebralis (PI), which also expresses the clock proteins PER and TIM and is known to be important in insulin signaling, aging and diapause.
Following the milkweed trail north
One question Reppert and his team wished to answer was whether the spring and summer butterflies orient northwards (in the same way as their parents and (great)grandparents did southwards) in order to return north from Mexico, or whether they simply work their way north following the milkweed trail. In a study by the group published recently in BMC Biology , Zhu et al. treated diapausing fall butterflies with a juvenile hormone (JH) analog and showed that this stimulated reproductive development as expected. They observed, however, that the treated individuals were still able to fly directionally and point south towards Mexico. This means that although JH shutdown stimulates diapause and may initiate celestial orientation, JH deficiency is not required to maintain directionality, which can be independent of reproductive state.
In contrast, the majority of wild-caught summer butterflies did not show any directional response, confirming earlier reports . These results therefore suggest, with some caveats, that the spring and summer butterflies may simply follow the milkweed back home rather than actively orienting with their compass. One wonders whether treating summer butterflies with a JH antagonist might initiate a stronger orienting response?
Genes associated with migration
To identify genes that might be involved in orientation, microarray experiments were carried out to compare the brain transcriptome of fall migrants and summer butterflies . In addition, fall migrants treated with the JH agonist were studied, together with appropriate vehicle-injected migrant controls. Thus, the experimental design sought to identify transcripts that are differentially regulated between the summer group and the migrants (irrespective of the migrants' reproductive state). Forty transcripts were observed to show differences in expression, of which more than half had some annotation associated with them from other databases. The hits included a clock gene vrille, which regulates the Clk gene and the gene for tyramine beta hydroxylase (which is required for the biosynthesis of the neurotransmitter octopamine), as well as other genes involved in neural and behavioral plasticity. It remains to be seen how important any of these are to the orientation phenotype; this can only be assessed by direct manipulation of these molecules in the brain.
The receptors for polarized UV light in the butterfly's retinal dorsal rim and their input to the circadian time-oriented sun compass help point the way to Mexico. But many animal compasses rely on magnetic fields, so how might magnetoreception be encoded within the Monarch? Reppert's group has also recently carried out a study of magnetoreception in Drosophila melanogaster . Using flies trained to respond to a magnetic field, it was apparent that various fly strains showed a modest magnetosensitivity, but only when light in the near-blue region was included.
These wavelengths (around 420 nm) fit the action spectrum of Drosophila CRY, and indeed it has been speculated that the photoinducible electron-transfer reaction of this flavoprotein generates magnetosensitive radical pairs . In support of this hypothesis, fly loss-of-function cry mutants were severely compromised in their magnetosensitivity .
These results suggest that CRY could be a magnetoreceptor, or if not, that it might act as a signaling component downstream of the true receptor. Either way, attention must now focus on the Monarch's CRY proteins, and whether one or both of these can provide magnetosensitivity. Interestingly, in the central body, the putative locality of the sun compass, nerve fibers expressing CRY2, not CRY1, are observed. So, although one would presume from the fly data that the Drosophila-like butterfly CRY1 protein would be the most relevant in any photoinducible radical-pair hypothesis, we should perhaps not rule out CRY2. An initial way forward would be to transform the butterfly cry1 into the fly, and see whether it rescues magnetosensitivity in the cry mutant, and whether mutagenesis of the relevant radical-pair residues does not. This and many other experiments now suggest themselves, and there is little doubt that we will soon be treated to another breakthrough in the otherwise mystical phenomenon of Monarch migration.
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