Timothy R Fallon 1 , 2 , Sarah E Lower 3 , 4 , Ching-Ho Chang 5 , Manabu Bessho-Uehara 6 , 7 , 8 , Gavin J Martin 9 , Adam J Bewick 10 , Megan Behringer 11 , Humberto J Debat 12 , Isaac Wong 5 , John C Day 13 , Anton Suvorov 9 , Christian J Silva 5 , 14 , Kathrin F Stanger-Hall 15 , David W Hall 10 , Robert J Schmitz 10 , David R Nelson 16 , Sara M Lewis 17 , Shuji Shigenobu 18 , Seth M Bybee 9 , Amanda M Larracuente 5 , Yuichi Oba 6 , Jing-Ke Weng , 1 , 2
16 October 2018
Fireflies and their luminous courtships have inspired centuries of scientific study. Today firefly luciferase is widely used in biotechnology, but the evolutionary origin of bioluminescence within beetles remains unclear. To shed light on this long-standing question, we sequenced the genomes of two firefly species that diverged over 100 million-years-ago: the North American Photinus pyralis and Japanese Aquatica lateralis. To compare bioluminescent origins, we also sequenced the genome of a related click beetle, the Caribbean Ignelater luminosus, with bioluminescent biochemistry near-identical to fireflies, but anatomically unique light organs, suggesting the intriguing hypothesis of parallel gains of bioluminescence. Our analyses support independent gains of bioluminescence in fireflies and click beetles, and provide new insights into the genes, chemical defenses, and symbionts that evolved alongside their luminous lifestyle.
Glowing fireflies dancing in the dark are one of the most enchanting sights of a warm summer night. Their light signals are ‘love messages’ that help the insects find a mate – yet, they also warn a potential predator that these beetles have powerful chemical defenses. The light comes from a specialized organ of the firefly where a small molecule, luciferin, is broken down by the enzyme luciferase.
Fireflies are an ancient group, with the common ancestor of the two main lineages originating over 100 million years ago. But fireflies are not the only insects that produce light: certain click beetles are also bioluminescent.
Fireflies and click beetles are closely related, and they both use identical luciferin and similar luciferases to create light. This would suggest that bioluminescence was already present in the common ancestor of the two families. However, the specialized organs in which the chemical reactions take place are entirely different, which would indicate that the ability to produce light arose independently in each group.
Here, Fallon, Lower et al. try to resolve this discrepancy and to find out how many times bioluminescence evolved in beetles. This required using cutting-edge DNA sequencing to carefully piece together the genomes of two species of fireflies ( Photinus pyralis and Aquatica lateralis) and one species of click beetle ( Ignelater luminosus). The genetic analysis revealed that, in all species, the genes for luciferases were very similar to the genetic sequences around them, which code for proteins that break down fat. This indicates that the ancestral luciferase arose from one of these metabolic genes getting duplicated, and then one of the copies evolving a new role.
However, the genes for luciferase were very different between the fireflies and the click beetles. Further analyses suggested that bioluminescence evolved at least twice: once in an ancestor of fireflies, and once in the ancestor of the bioluminescent click beetles.
More results came from the reconstituted genomes. For example, Fallon, Lower et al. identified the genes ‘turned on’ in the bioluminescent organ of the fireflies. This made it possible to list genes that may be involved in creating luciferin, and enable flies to grow brightly for long periods. In addition, the genetic information yielded sequences from bacteria that likely live inside firefly cells, and which may participate in the light-making process or the production of potent chemical defenses.
Better genetic knowledge of beetle bioluminescence could bring new advances for both insects and humans. It may help researchers find and design better light-emitting molecules useful to track and quantify proteins of interest in a cell. Ultimately, it would allow a detailed understanding of firefly populations around the world, which could contribute to firefly ecotourism and help to protect these glowing insects from increasing environmental threats.