Thursday 2 June 2016

Famous peppered moth's dark secret revealed

By Jonathan Webb Science reporter, BBC News
1 June 2016

Scientists have discovered the specific mutation that famously turned moths black during the Industrial Revolution.

In an iconic evolutionary case study, a black form of the peppered moth rapidly took over in industrial parts of the UK during the 1800s, as soot blackened the tree trunks and walls of its habitat.

Now, researchers from the University of Liverpool have pinpointed the genetic change that caused this adaptation.

They have also calculated the most likely date for the mutation - 1819.

Their study appears in the journal Nature, alongside a second paper, which describes how the same gene allows tropical butterflies to switch between different colour schemes.

Dr Ilik Saccheri has been working on the peppered moth since setting up his Liverpool laboratory 15 years ago, he told Science in Action on the BBC World Service.

"When I started working on it I was surprised, given how well known it is, that no-one had actually tried to... characterise the underlying genetics controlling the physical appearance of this moth," he said.

"It's a graphic example of rapid evolutionary change. In the days before we could track mutation and change in bacteria and viruses, there weren't many examples of visible change within a human lifetime."

And it was indeed an early discovery; black moths, strikingly different from the insect's usual mottled white, were first spotted in 1848 - 10 years before the concept of natural selection was formally outlined by Darwin and Wallace.

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