Interview with the authors: Lack of gene flow: Narrow and dispersed differentiation islands in a triplet of Leptidea butterfly species

A diverse array of evolutionary processes contribute to diversity and divergence, and as large genomic datasets become more readily available our ability to parse apart these processes increases. In their recent Molecular Ecology publication, Talla et al. generate genomic data from six populations of wood white butterflies and use this data to try to tease apart the effects of introgression, recombination rate variation, selection, and genetic drift. In contrast to many previous genome-scan studies, they find no evidence of introgression or parallelism. Rather, they find support for genetic drift and directional selection as having shaped genomic divergence between species. Read the full article here: https://doi.org/10.1111/mec.15188, and learn more below with a behind-the-scenes interview with the authors.

What led to your interest in this topic / what was the motivation for this study? 
We have a general interest in understanding the contribution of different molecular mechanisms and evolutionary forces to genomic differentiation between diverging lineages. Previous research in this area has revealed a rather complex interaction between selection, genetic drift, recombination rate variation and introgression and we thought we had found an ideal study system to tell these factors apart. In addition, we believe that it will be key to describe the divergence landscapes in many different taxonomic groups to understand the relative importance of different molecular and evolutionary factors in lineages with different genetic/genomic features, demographic histories and life-history characteristics.

What difficulties did you run into along the way? 
Our expectations were not really met regarding the study system. First, earlier observations suggested that hybridization occurs between species pairs in the Leptidea group when they occur in sympatry, indicating that introgression might differ between sympatric and allopatric species pairs, but this turned out to be wrong. Second, butterflies lack centromeres and this could indicate a more even recombination landscape than what is generally observed in taxa with centromeres, but this we could not address with our data. Third, we expected that the divergence time between lineages was short which was again not right. Finally, the three species are characterized by large differences in karyotype, and we wanted to investigate if chromosomal rearrangements could underlie reproductive isolation, but this goal was actually out of reach with our data.

What is the biggest or most surprising finding from this study? 
It was surprising to us that there was no evidence for interspecific gene flow since hybrids have been observed. We were also very surprised by the deep divergence times between these virtually identical species. Besides that, we do not think the results are really surprising, but they do give some novel insight into the patterns of genomic divergence when there is no introgression and when chromosomes lack centromeres. One observation that we found interesting was that regions with high genetic differentiation (FST) had higher genetic divergence (DXY) than the genomic average. This may sound intuitive, but many previous ‘genome-scan’ studies have in fact found a negative relationship between differentiation and divergence, most likely as a consequence of reduced recombination in some regions leading to reduced diversity already before lineages started to diverge.

Moving forward, what are the next steps for this research? 
We are developing more resources to generate genome assemblies of multiple species in the study system and we are also working on establishing high-density linkage maps for multiple populations with different karyotypes. These tools will help us pinpoint chromosome rearrangements and investigate if these have played a role in the divergence process. The data will also be used to quantify the effects of fissions and fusions on the recombination landscape. We are also delving into other approaches to understand how ecological and behavioral differences between species leave footprints in the DNA sequences or epigenetic marks (and vice versa). Given the deep divergence times between species and the apparent lack of gene flow, we will mainly focus on intraspecific comparisons where we observe some incompatibilities between some populations with distinct karyotypes.

What would your message be for students about to start their first research projects in this topic? 
We would suggest to read up on the previous literature in detail. We also encourage students to contact leading researchers in the field to discuss potential questions. Most people are really helpful and interested in knowing about other research efforts within their field. Discussing directly with experienced researchers also gives a hint on the key questions that should be addressed to extend the knowledge in the field. Given the copious amount of data we generate these days and the integrative nature of the questions we ask, it is also crucial to develop some skills in bioinformatics and scripting and to have a network of collaborators/colleagues that can provide help and support in both theory, experimental studies and data analyses.

What have you learned about science over the course of this project? 
That science is an extremely time-consuming and dynamic process and that the first glimpse on the data not necessarily reflects the final results. Moreover, that project plans need to be worked over regularly to accommodate for that the initial strategies did not really work out as they were outlined. We also acknowledge the importance of establishing a network of colleagues with expertise in different areas of the field – we experience that most research projects within our field are getting more and more integrative and it will be increasingly difficult to conduct advanced research without collaboration.

Describe the significance of this research for the general scientific community in one sentence.
We verify that genomic differentiation between diverging lineages is affected by a complex interaction between molecular mechanisms and evolutionary forces and stress the importance of studying organisms with different genomic features, demographic histories and life-history characteristics.

Describe the significance of this research for your scientific community in one sentence.
In contrast to much of the previous work on patterns of genomic diversity and differentiation, our study provides insight into divergence processes when the effects of gene flow and/or a shared and highly variable recombination landscape are absent.

Full article: Talla V, Johansson A, Dincă V, et al. Lack of gene flow: Narrow and dispersed differentiation islands in a triplet of Leptidea butterfly species. Mol Ecol. 2019;28:3756–3770. https://doi.org/10.1111/mec.15188.

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