MSU professor nets $1.2M grant for butterfly research

MSU associate professor of biological sciences Brian Counterman is leading a collaborative research team examining genotype-phenotype relationships using color patterns of the Heliconius butterfly. On Aug. 1 he received a $1.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation. (Photo by Megan Bean, MSU)
Staff Writer

A Mississippi State University professor has received continuing support from the National Science Foundation for research involving genomes (genetic characteristics) and phenomes (physical characteristics) of the Heliconius butterfly.

The $1.2 million grant is under the control of MSU biology associate professor Brian Counterman and is a continuation of a previous $750,000 NSF grant. The total amount of the current four-year grant is $4 million, with the remainder of the funds under the control of University of Puerto Rico-Rio Piedras professor Ricardo Papas. The grant is under the NSF’s Established

Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR). Counterman told the SDN the grant would be used to fund the experiments, as well as professional development. The professional development component will offer training in genomics to undergraduate, graduate and doctoral students, as well as assistant professors at MSU and in Puerto Rico.

“They have a huge impact for research and workforce development,” Counterman said of the grants.

Counterman explained that Heliconius was a good species for the project due to its ability to work with other species to train predators to avoid them and that they had been studied scientifically for more than 150 years.

Through their research, Counterman said they had found the gene responsible for variations in color of the Heliconius butterfly.

“We’re applying this to actually knock off or change the genes, so we can actually change the color of a butterfly’s wing,” Counterman said. “We’re using this as a model for pattern development.”

Counterman said there were four MSU professors involved in the project and five from The University of Puerto Rico. Other MSU researchers involved in the study include Jovonn Hill, Federico Hoffmann and Ryan Range.

The grant was awarded on Aug. 1.