What lurks in the DNA of the mysterious Monarch butterfly?

For the first time ever, scientists have sequenced the genome of a creature who migrates long distances: the Monarch butterfly. The Monarch Genome Project hopes to provide insight into the butterflies' mysterious migratory pattern, which involves travel over great distances for several generations. How do these creatures return to the territory where their great-grandparents were born, without ever having seen it?

"With this genome sequence in hand, we now have an overwhelming number of opportunities to understand the genetic and molecular basis of long-distance migration," says Steven Reppert of the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

The migrating butterfly travels an astonishing 2,000 miles every fall, and those that make the trip are a full two generations removed from those who went the previous year, which means the information is ingrained in their genes rather than learned.

The researchers found pathways responsible for vision, the circadian clock, and oriented flight, all of which are key for migration. They also discovered the genes used to synthesize juvenile hormone, the control of which allows the migrating generation of the butteflies to shut down their reproductive cycle, and extend their life from one month to nine.

What's going to be interesting is when other migrating animals like birds and mammals finally get their genomes sequenced. At that point, we'll be able to compare mechanisms of long distance travel and navigation.

Photo by Susana Gonzalez/Newsmakers