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A model for selection of eyespots on butterfly wings

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The development of eyespots on the wing surface in butterflies of the Family Nympalidae is one of the most studied examples of biological pattern formation. However, little is known about the mechanism that determines global pattern elements such as the number and precise locations of eyespots on the entire wing. Eyespots develop around signaling centers, called foci of a group of focal cells, that are located equidistant from wing veins along the midline of a wing cell (an area bounded by veins). A fundamental question that remains unsolved is, why a certain wing cell develops an eyespot, while other wing cells do not. We illustrate that the key to understanding focus point selection may be in the venation system of the wing disc. Our main hypothesis is that changes in morphogen concentration along the proximal boundary veins of wing cells govern focus point selection. Based on previous studies, we focus on a spatially two-dimensional reaction-diffusion system model posed in the interior of each wing cell that describes the formation of focus points. Using finite element based numerical simulations, we demonstrate that variation in the proximal boundary condition is sufficient to robustly select whether an eyespot focus point forms in otherwise identical wing cells. We also illustrate that this behavior is robust to small perturbations in the parameters and geometry and moderate levels of noise. Hence, we suggest that an anterior-posterior pattern of morphogen concentration along the proximal vein may be the main determinant of the distribution of focus points on the entire wing surface. In order to complete our model, we propose a two stage reaction-diffusion system model, in which an one-dimensional surface reaction-diffusion system, posed on the proximal veins, generates the morphogen concentrations that act as non-homogeneous Dirichlet (i.e., fixed) boundary conditions for the two-dimensional reaction-diffusion model posed in the wing cells. The two-stage model appears capable of generating focus point distributions observed in nature. We therefore conclude that changes in the proximal boundary conditions are sufficient to explain the empirically observed distribution of eyespot focus points on the entire wing surface. The model predicts, subject to experimental verification, that the source strength of the activator at the proximal boundary should be lower in wing cells in which focus points form than in those that lack focus points.

This talk is part of the Isaac Newton Institute Seminar Series series.

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