Multiple Mechanisms of Photoreceptor Spectral Tuning in Heliconius Butterflies

Kyle J. McCulloch, Aide Macias-Muñoz, Ali Mortazavi, Adriana D. Briscoe

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

11 Scopus citations


The evolution of color vision is often studied through the lens of receptor gain relative to an ancestor with fewer spectral classes of photoreceptor. For instance, in Heliconius butterflies, a genus-specific UVRh opsin duplication led to the evolution of UV color discrimination in Heliconius erato females, a rare trait among butterflies. However, color vision evolution is not well understood in the context of loss. In Heliconius melpomene and Heliconius ismenius lineages, the UV2 receptor subtype has been lost, which limits female color vision in shorter wavelengths. Here, we compare the visual systems of butterflies that have either retained or lost the UV2 photoreceptor using intracellular recordings, ATAC-seq, and antibody staining. We identify several ways these butterflies modulate their color vision. In H. melpomene, chromatin reorganization has downregulated an otherwise intact UVRh2 gene, whereas in H. ismenius, pseudogenization has led to the truncation of UVRh2. In species that lack the UV2 receptor, the peak sensitivity of the remaining UV1 photoreceptor cell is shifted to longer wavelengths. Across Heliconius, we identify the widespread use of filtering pigments and co-expression of two opsins in the same photoreceptor cells. Multiple mechanisms of spectral tuning, including the molecular evolution of blue opsins, have led to the divergence of receptor sensitivities between species. The diversity of photoreceptor and ommatidial subtypes between species suggests that Heliconius visual systems are under varying selection pressures for color discrimination. Modulating the wavelengths of peak sensitivities of both the blue- and remaining UV-sensitive photoreceptor cells suggests that Heliconius species may have compensated for UV receptor loss.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbermsac067
JournalMolecular biology and evolution
Issue number4
StatePublished - 2022

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2022 The Author(s) 2022. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of Society for Molecular Biology and Evolution.


  • Lepidoptera
  • coexpression
  • color vision
  • photoreceptor
  • short wavelength opsin
  • ultraviolet


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