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NCGAS is helping scientists understand why the strawberry poison-dart frog, which usually exhibits a red body with black spots as seen here, shows a wide variety of color morphs across the Panamanian archipelago of Bocas del Toro.

How frogs are cracking the evolutionary code

IU genome analysis center works with scientists to understand color variation in Central America’s strawberry poison-dart frog

In the wild, camouflage helps some animals blend in with their surroundings; other animals, such as the strawberry poison-dart frog (Oophaga pumilio), adapt vivid warning colorations to signal their toxicity to predators.

This frog, found throughout Central America, exhibits the eponymous red body with black spots throughout most of its range, but exhibits a wide variety  of color morphs across the small Panamanian archipelago of Bocas del Toro. These different skin colorations, which include vibrant greens, yellows, and blues, are the result of presumably recent and rapid evolution on the islands.

Layla Freeborn, a Ph.D. student in the Richards-Zawacki lab at the University of Pittsburgh, studies the molecular, cellular, and evolutionary basis of variable skin coloration in this beautiful frog species.

Freeborn uses the IU-based National Center for Genome Analysis Support, or NCGAS, to help sift through the overwhelming amount of information and bioinformatic resources online.

Freeborn’s research on poison frog coloration contributes to the growing body of work that aims to understand evolution from multiple levels of biological organization—from pigment cells to the genes that determine their expression, and the evolutionary processes that determine which pigment cells emerge in the frog’s skin.

This type of frog is not a key focus in the study of evolution, which is exactly why Freeborn is studying it. “To truly understand the complexity of evolution—whether to satisfy our own curiosities or to understand how organisms respond to rapidly changing environments, scientists have to expand their study subjects to include lesser-known and understudied groups,” she explained. “This includes organisms such as poison frogs.”

Providing experimental data and research about these “non-model” organisms helps researchers connect the dots to achieve a fuller understanding of evolution.

Freeborn’s current project examines whether similar color morphs are the result of convergent evolution (the independent evolution of a trait exhibited by organisms from different lineages) or shared ancestry. Her study includes next-generation sequencing data collected from each of the color morphs found across Bocas del Toro Archipelago and the adjacent mainland.

Freeborn uses the IU-based National Center for Genome Analysis Support, or NCGAS, to help sift through the overwhelming amount of information and bioinformatic resources online.

“The greatest benefit, for me, in working with NCGAS is the expertise and guidance provided by the bioinformatics analysts,” she said. “There are so many bioinformatics resources on the internet that it can be information overload, and none of them help you figure out what is best for your project. NCGAS has helped me distill all this information and streamline the decision-making part of the analysis.”

Freeborn explained that of the approximately 1.5 million described species on Earth, we have a complete understanding of phenotypic (trait) evolution in relatively few. Studying the genomic patterns of coloration within strawberry poison-dart frogs could open the door to a fuller understanding of particular adaptations, and of evolution as a whole.