Dr. Wei Zhang published a paper in Molecular Biology & Evolution with her collaborator.
Neotropical Heliconius butterflies are well known for their intricate behaviors and multiple instances of incipient speciation. Chemosensing plays a fundamental role in the life history of these groups of butterflies and in the establishment of reproductive isolation. However, chemical communication involves synergistic sensory and accessory functions, and it remains challenging to investigate the molecular mechanisms underlying behavioral differences. Here, we examine the gene expression profiles and genomic divergence of three sensory tissues (antennae, legs, and mouthparts) between sexes (females and males) and life stages (different adult stages) in two hybridizing butterflies, Heliconius melpomene and Heliconius cydno. By integrating comparative transcriptomic and population genomic approaches, we found evidence of widespread gene expression divergence, supporting a crucial role of sensory tissues in the establishment of species barriers. We also show that sensory diversification increases in a manner consistent with evolutionary divergence based on comparison with the more distantly related species Heliconius charithonia. The findings of our study strongly support the unique chemosensory function of antennae in all three species, the importance of the Z chromosome in interspecific divergence, and the nonnegligible role of nonchemosensory genes in the divergence of chemosensory tissues. Collectively, our results provide a genome-wide illustration of diversification in the chemosensory system under incomplete reproductive isolation, revealing strong molecular separation in the early stage of speciation. Here, we provide a unique perspective and relevant view of the genetic architecture (sensory and accessory functions) of chemosensing beyond the classic chemosensory gene families, leading to a better understanding of the magnitude and complexity of molecular changes in sensory tissues that contribute to the establishment of reproductive isolation and speciation.