Expanding the Menu: Are Polyphagy and Gene Family Expansions Linked across Lepidoptera?

Thijmen Breeschoten*, Corné F.H. van der Linden, Vera I.D. Ros, Eric Schranz, Sabrina Simon

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

4 Citations (Scopus)


Evolutionary expansions and contractions of gene families are often correlated with key innovations and/or ecological characteristics. In butterflies and moths (Lepidoptera), expansions of gene families involved in detoxification of plant specialized metabolites are hypothesized to facilitate a polyphagous feeding style. However, analyses supporting this hypothesis are mostly based on a limited number of lepidopteran species. We applied a phylogenomics approach, using 37 lepidopteran genomes, to analyze if gene family evolution (gene gain and loss) is associated with the evolution of polyphagy. Specifically, we compared gene counts and evolutionary gene gain and loss rates of gene families involved in adaptations with plant feeding. We correlated gene evolution to host plant family range (phylogenetic diversity) and specialized metabolite content of plant families (functional metabolite diversity). We found a higher rate for gene loss than gene gain in Lepidoptera, a potential consequence of genomic rearrangements and deletions after (potentially small-scale) duplication events. Gene family expansions and contractions varied across lepidopteran families, and were associated to host plant use and specialization levels. Within the family Noctuidae, a higher expansion rate for gene families involved in detoxification can be related to the large number of polyphagous species. However, gene family expansions are observed in both polyphagous and monophagous lepidopteran species and thus seem to be species-specific in the taxa sampled. Nevertheless, a significant positive correlation of gene counts of the carboxyl- and choline esterase and glutathione-S-transferase detoxification gene families with the level of polyphagy was identified across Lepidoptera.

Original languageEnglish
JournalGenome Biology and Evolution
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 4 Jan 2022


  • butterfly–plant interactions
  • gene family evolution
  • gene family expansion
  • herbivory
  • Lepidoptera


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