A butterfly’s new green glow

Scientists have tweaked a butterfly's genes to make its eyes glow green.

The colorful patterns on a butterfly’s wings can be mysterious and beautiful. Now add a jellyfish gene to a butterfly’s genetic makeup. Suddenly, the result becomes even more awe-inspiring.

The jellyfish gene directs production of a chemical compound. It glows green when exposed to blue or ultraviolet light. In an African butterfly, adding this gene makes its eyes glow green.


The brownish eye of this African tropical butterfly glows green when exposed to ultraviolet light (inset) after scientists added a jellyfish gene to the butterfly’s genetic makeup.


W. Piel; (inset) Diane Ramos

All cells contain long, complicated molecules called DNA. It provides the instructions that tell a cell what to do and how to grow. A gene is a piece of a DNA molecule that has a particular function. And that gene can be passed on from parents to their offspring.

Researchers from the State University of New York at Buffalo and Western Kentucky University worked together on the new butterfly experiment. They started with a gene—a snippet of DNA—that allows jellyfish to produce a chemical compound that glows green. Then they inserted this gene into each of more than 10,000 butterfly eggs. About 5 percent of the eggs survived.

Of those that did and grew to be adults, some 15 percent had offspring with glowing green eyes—at least when researchers looked at them under ultraviolet light. Our eyes can’t see the green glow on their own.

This was the first time that researchers had successfully changed a butterfly’s genetic makeup. Others had previously added jellyfish genes to create glowing green eyes in houseflies and some other insects.

Now that they know it’s possible, scientists want to try to change butterflies in other ways. One goal is to understand how genes control the development of spots on the insects’ wings.

There may be as much information and biology as beauty and mystery in those dramatic streaks of color flitting by on a sunny spring day.

More Stories from Science News Explores on Genetics