Using Gene Editing To Repaint Butterfly Wings

Using Gene Editing To Repaint Butterfly Wings

Thanks to The Great Courses Plus for supporting PBS Digital Studios How… to paint…a butterfly wing. Hey smart people, Joe here. CRISPR: it’s a DNA-editing technology that
you’ve probably heard about in terms of disease, medicine, maybe making genetically
modified organisms. But scientists are using it for some really
interesting questions, like why do butterflies have such awesome looking wing patterns, and how
do they form? So I’m here at George Washington University. And I’m gonna go CRISPR some butterflies. Now, there’s been a lot of hype around CRISPR. CRISPR RRRRRRRRRRRRR But what is it actually? CRISPR is a DNA hacking system with two parts. One part is a piece of RNA that carries a
set of coordinates matching a specific spot in the genome’s DNA. The other part is a protein that chews through
DNA, which creates a small mutation. And we can program CRISPR with a specific
set of coordinates so it cuts exactly what we want. AM: You see this red stuff here? JH: Mhmm
AM: This is CRISPR (wink) JH: A tube full of CRISPR
JH: So, everytime you hear someone say CRISPR, now you know what it looks like. That’s Dr. Arnaud Martin. Dr. Martin and his team are using CRISPR to
understand how butterfly genes make so many crazy patterns and colors. There’s more than 200,000 species of butterfly
and moth – all with their own unique wing patterns. We know they use those patterns to attract
mates, hide from predators, and send warning signals, but how and why these colors get
painted is still a mystery. But this is about more than just studying
butterfly patterns. These scientists are trying to answer an important
question about our own biology and even life itself: How do the instructions in DNA build
bodies? I mean, genes–the letters of DNA–are just
codes. How do we go from those letters and codes
to the many beautiful shapes and colors we see in nature? This is a question CRISPR can help us answer. AM: Those fundamental basic questions of how
genes make shapes, this is relevant to us. I mean, what I want to understand is how DNA
makes, you know, people. The first step to figuring out the mystery
is easy: collect some butterfly eggs. This is Joe. This is also Joe. He’s a researcher in the lab. So, we’re on the roof of a building
in downtown Washington DC, in a greenhouse. JH: That’s why I feel so tropical. OJ: Yeah, it’s maybe 72 fahrenheit in here. Maybe a little warmer. And about 85% humidity. We keep Gulf fritillary butterflies here. If the team is lucky, they can collect around
40 eggs a day from these butterflies to modify with CRISPR. JH: These are one of my favorite butterflies. They’re super pretty. They have these lovely silver patches on the
underside of their wings, which I just think are really, really beautiful. JH: So you wait for the butterflies to lay
enough of the eggs, and you collect them so you can do the work you’re going to do? Exactly! What we do with CRISPR, rather than being super precise we’re sort of going in with a hammer and smashing the
gene and then seeing what happens. It’s like if you wanted to understand how
a car worked, so you open the hood and just started smashing pieces. And then found the way in which the car stopped
working. If the car just completely stops, then maybe
that doesn’t tell you anything. But if the car still works, except the radiator
is now broken, then you understand that the bit you smashed has something to do with the
radiator. So that’s the version of this that we’re
doing. Very broad strokes, breaking bits and seeing
what breaks. The next step is we take those eggs down to
the lab to inject them with CRISPR. And by we, I mean me. I’m going to do it. Alright, your turn! Here we have a Gulf fritillary egg from
the top You move the needle back, you approach
gently, you get in, and you press the pedal. There it is! I did it! Oh you can see the little red burst inside. CRISPRRR The eggs will develop and hatch like usual,
only the DNA inside has been altered by the CRISPR that we injected. The caterpillars, look, well, like normal
caterpillars. You’d never know the difference. Unless you look inside their bodies. Okay, let’s talk metamorphosis. You’ve maybe heard that when a caterpillar
morphs into its final form, inside the chrysalis, it completely liquifies into soup, and that
liquid rearranges to form a butterfly. This misconception has been repeated so often
it’s replaced the truth. And what actually happens is way cooler. Caterpillars mature from the inside out. The larvae move through stages of growth,
called instars. When an instar gets big enough, it crawls
out of its skin and the next stage of growth emerges from inside. And when the caterpillar is just about big
enough to form a chrysalis, it already has some pieces of the adult butterfly inside
it… What you’re about to see absolutely blew
my mind: So, you see this and you’re thinking
no way this thing has wings, it’s a larva, it’s not even flying! What the heck… I’m going to make an incision between the
two nostrils, between the diaphragms. Check that out. This is incredible. That… is…. That’s a larval wing. That’s a baby wing! Here we go! You can see the veins and everything,
it looks like a tiny, clear butterfly wing. Wow! That’s right. This is the stage where not only the shape
of the wings is defined, but also the position of patterns. That’s right, caterpillars have baby butterfly
wings inside them. And even at this early stage, the butterfly’s
wing pattern is being painted. The team can label which genetic instructions
are turned on in that baby wing. And what’s crazy is where we see certain
genes turned on lines up perfectly with where the patterns will be on the adult butterfly. And when CRISPR messes up that DNA instruction? We can also see how the pattern is disrupted. So the different genes that you study
here in the lab lay down different parts of this pattern? Exactly, so during larval development
you have a canvas of cells that are communicating, and the wings need to decide where to make,
maybe, reflective scales, or dark scales. And it’s really, a little bit, – if I
can make an analogy – of sketching process, where the outlines of each patterns are determined
super early. It’s during metamorphosis in the pupa or
chrysalis that really the scales are emerging, and the colors happen. It’s like a paint by numbers. The genes they’ve identified draw in the
boundaries and say “paint here.” Later on, inside the chrysalis different genes
paint in the colors based on those early instructions. But the basic shapes, the organization,
the concentric rings, stripes – the position of all the system is established super early
in the larva. Which is mind blowing. So now you know caterpillars don’t turn
into total mush as they mature, and they have some adult body parts hidden inside them. BUT! There’s still a ton we don’t know about
how wings form inside the chrysalis. If only we could see inside. Well some scientists have figured out a way
to do that, like our old friend Aaron Pomerantz a PhD candidate at UC Berkeley: What my lab tries to understand is how butterflies
form their wings and their scales, which occurs in the pupal stage. Now If you’ve ever stared a pupa for long
enough, you may have been a bit underwhelmed. It doesn’t look like they’re doing a whole
lot. They don’t really move. They don’t often look that flashy. But just below the surface there’s an incredible
amount of change happening. Caterpillars do contain the precursors to
their adult wings: a small cluster of cells known as an imaginal disc. And these cells have all the information necessary
to transform into an adult wing when the time is right. A couple of scientists- Julian Kamura and Ryan Null–figured out on accident that if you remove this imaginal disc, now you would have a window into the
pupa. So now we can set up a time lapse under
a microscope to watch this entire process happen. And what we see is *incredible*. The cells in the immature wing start to specialize,
or differentiate into elaborate shapes and colors Those gene instructions, laid down in the
baby butterfly wing, tucked inside the caterpillar, tell the wing where to paint in these colors It’s both fascinating to me, and important
to science, that we can watch the wings as they develop, and see how colors are filled in. The adult butterfly wing is covered in thousands and thousands of scales, and this is where the color comes from, because each one of
those scales produces a specific color – either through the architecture of the scale that
creates a certain wavelength, known as structural color, or from pigments that become deposited
inside those scales. …in the CRISPR mutants, some of those cells
are broken, like the car’s radiator, so we can see how that changes the wing pattern. When metamorphosis is complete, the butterfly that emerges is called a mosaic mutant It has a change in some part of its body. Here is the butterflies we had in the
cage over there, Agraulis, where you have these lovely precisely placed silver spots
all over the wing surfaces. And then we knock out one gene – a gene called WntA. We literally just go in and smash it with a hammer so it’s not there anymore, and what we get is this. There are still silver spots, but the arrangement of those silver spots is completely different. In other butterfly species, switching off
that gene had totally different results: it can make patterns fade, or even disappear. WntA seems to be the master sketching pencil
for butterfly wing patterns. And they’ve identified another gene, called
optix, that’s more of a master paintbrush. Messing with it can turn some butterflies
black, and make others iridescent blue. These genes are part of the master set of
instructions to build a body, and we have similar genes in our bodies. We can’t go in and break those genes in humans to understand how they work, but we can learn something about them by decoding how these beautiful insect patterns are painted. When people talk about CRISPR they like to
think of creating mutant creatures or superhumans, but here in real life, CRISPR has given scientists
more power than ever to study how genetic instructions give us all life’s diversity
of shapes and forms. CRISPR has made this kind of gene tweaking
cheaper, faster, and more accurate than ever. This really makes me wonder, if you have
this ability to tweak how butterfly patterns end up coming out can we get more control and actually design
butterfly artwork of our own? Make butterflies look the way we want to? I think we will be able to, so yes, we
can… but should we? It’s a new power, a new tool to harness
nature, so we’re responsible, we need to do things that are relatively ethical, I would say.


  • It's Okay To Be Smart says:

    Making this video completely changed the way I look at caterpillars and butterflies. It will change the way you look at them too. Trust me!
    I'm on Twitter and Instagram @DrJoeHanson/@okaytobesmart

  • Ilnia Ilnia says:

    so a bug's life was half right

  • D M says:

    2:30 "feels tropical in here" and proceeds to show that it is 22°C… duuudee that's the temperature I put in my air conditioner to cool down hahaahhaha!

  • THEBIGMEOW says:

    It's like God said
    Humans changing Nature
    Rather than transforming thier Ego's.

  • NinjaOnANinja says:

    Even this fucker is abusing opiates. Christ man. Earth is going to hell right now because people like you. People who make too much money and take too much from the system and leave others to die.

    Needless to say, I don't like you.

  • Stephen Goodfellow says:

    This video was posted on the CRISPR Facebook Forum: Articles, Papers, Video, Podcasts, Discussion – 5,333 Members:

  • Arjen B says:

    give me some salamander genes so i regrow ma D back when my gf cuts it off when i cheated on her.
    and some butterfly genes so i can make a nice pattern on it 😛

  • N. L. says:

    C R I S P R R…

  • Diego Antonio Zavaleta Zeballos says:

    That's not Dr. Martin that's Drake Bell.

  • Marcello Amadeus Osoba says:

    Did they just kill caterpillars to show us their wings?😭

  • Alpha_ Wolfie says:

    How to paint a butterfly Wing
    Beauty is everywhere
    -Bob Ross

  • Tattered Heart Ltd. says:

    SCP-3209: The Boredom Butterfly

    Object Class: Euclid

  • Dankduck says:

    Butterflies are just pixels, holy hell. I actually learned something new

  • Marco Kalach says:

    i always knew the apocalypse had something to do with butterflies

  • CJ Thibeau says:

    WOW!!! Super interesting and informative video!!! Can't wait to see whatcha talk about next!

  • S. Em says:

    Loved this episode! What amazing things we can do now in science!

  • Jemy Wemy says:

    What makes me curieus is: How do the butterflys get into the whome-like-state again after being born out of a egg. The cocoon stage looks like a fetus growing in a belly. So fast. Do they make special hormones for this…???

  • Junyeong Yang says:

    In a distant future in the mutant apocalypse theyll look back to this day n call it the butterfly effect

  • Hati Keseorangan says:

    Nice video… I love it so much… Thanks

  • YoungGatz 99 says:

    I guess you could be playing God by doing this but I think it's really cool

  • odd burger 10th fry says:

    gimme wings

  • Victor Pisarev says:

    I`d really feel resented if my English was subtitled. Although he has a strong accent, his speech is quite understandable…

  • Nssto says:

    "Relatively" Ethical, key word: Relatively

  • Dragoonz UwU says:

    I live to see the day when a butterflies wing is genetically modified to have doge’s face on it.

  • VandaIeyes says:

    HeY smArT PeOpLe

  • AJITH P.J says:

    All this technology, still no legitimate cure for baldness

  • Hamza Haytham says:

    This is so…


  • YouGottaMineDeep says:

    They could literally be killing malaria or pretty much bring back extinct animals but they do this!

  • Manh Hoang says:

    Why is this channel dying ?

  • Nelson Z says:


  • coolascats says:

    Joe, you have an older, albino clone who also is doing science. @ 2:35 Coolascats has spoken, MEOW!

  • KramChay Dig says:

    can they alter the butterfly's wing texture into a face of a person?

  • Anik Samiur Rahman says:

    Metamorphosis of genetics: from Fruit fly to Butterfly!

  • Chitraansh Popli. says:

    Great great video!

  • Jessica says:

    Could be a gateway to helping human genes Genetically remove deformities, illnesses, diseases and disabilities that either lie dormant or are present in a human gene. Its a bit scary and amazing knowing babies might come out absolutely free from any hereditary diseases and deformities.

  • Janette Moore says:

    You could use b*tt flys as advertisements …. try the correct pattern and. Bam! You have a Pepsi add.

  • Vlad says:

    I like how when doing those kind of things people try not to focus too much on the fact that it would be immoral or smth to do this with human DNA, but pretty much okay with an insect. In the name of science… Right? It's not like a butterfly can sue you.

  • TheReal_ist says:

    1:09 just stop u guys please. This clip of time in the vid shows how out of touch they both are with trying to be cool for kids. And hence forth making science aka genetic research therebye cool.

    U guys are like Hilary Clinton using "Pokemon GO to the poles" level of cringe and awkwardness. The worse thing is thy don't even feel it or see it. Ohh God that moment when u realize your old. Must stuck huh man??

  • محمد المقالح says:

    just talk slowly

  • محمد المقالح says:

    just talk slowly

  • hotel mike says:

    Can CRISPR be used on living animals.

  • v.i.n. c.h.i says:

    I want to see ricardo milos' face on a butterflies wings hehe

  • Dina says:

    22°C is winter in the tropics

  • lowkeywidowmain butiactuallysucktho says:

    apparently ethics just don't exist anymore

  • Natalia says:

    This was so interesting! Thanks for the great episode

  • TikiMillie says:

    Bruh i think joe is albino

    Maybe he can use crisper at some point to get more sun resistant

  • razrafz says:

    one step closer to genetically engineered catgirls

  • adac7786 says:

    swastika butterflies when? POG

  • Xyles7 says:

    I think that Joe used Joe to create Joe. But which Joe did that?

  • Eduardo Ribeiro says:

    What a lovely video. The science and the demographics. different accents, brains of different origins. All working together in the US. This is what the US is about. An open society with opportunities to all. Think about it next time an idiot talks about "controlling" immigration.

  • Fabian Alfonso says:

    DNA are just coding language for God lmao

  • Arckil says:

    If there's no shiny animals in real life

    create them

  • TheMightyX says:

    How cool is it you got to do the CRISPR to the egg?! Are you excited about that? Did they send you a picture of "your" butterfly? Oh man what a neat episode, I learned so much! 😀

  • John DC says:

    Fast forward to 20 years later where the majoirty of the population owns a terrarium filled with meme painted butterflies

  • nutzeeer says:

    Couldnt we build a mini MRI to look inside with high resolution?

  • Jayasankar KJ says:

    Crisper will be the next invention that changes the human species like how nuclear power, fire, wheel did.

  • Andreas Petersen says:

    In the futere we will probably have ads on butterflies

  • ratsface says:

    Imagine seeing a butterfly and reading the advertising for condoms written on his wings with that method 🤔

  • SHADMAN TV says:

    God did it according to believers

  • gear drop says:

    it’s not ok to be smart

  • memoryerror says:

    It feels pretty rude having subtitles up for someone who speaks English well.

  • Delicious Cake says:


  • Vince Klayer says:

    If the mother butterfly is Anti-Vaxx, then she’ll go nuts once she sees this video

  • Ashwin Saharawat says:

    1:33 the one on middle left with equations like symbols on bottom wings, Isn't it called the Albert einstein fly !
    No ? I am disappointed by the naming. hun

  • Дмитрий Иванович says:

    this video reminds me of that old australian sketch, the "why am i the only one getting the subtitles? i speak perfect english!"

  • baikia777 says:

    Yesss my theory is correct! I've never believed that caterpillars liquefy themselves when they turn into pupa/chrysalis. If they do, why can they still wiggle around if you touch the pupa/chrysalis? They must have already developed the organs/"muscles" before they molt.

  • Sara3346 says:

    10:10 um…actually I think we are perfectly capable of doing that, it's just most people including me would consider such to be unethical outside of working with nonviable embryo's.

  • Harsh Parekh says:

    CRISPR: Exists
    It's okay to be smart: Let's ASMR this.

  • CHARGE ! says:

    I do forget that Joe is technically a doctor since he has a phd

  • SwagHags69 says:

    Trying to capture every version of Vivillion

  • yeeter teeter says:

    I don’t really like the idea of CRISPR. Remember that Chinese man that got arrested?

  • Dax the promised end says:

    What an amazing video, I enjoyed a lot

  • Journey's Fable says:

    A book series I read called Wings Of Fire has a species of dragon based on butterflies. The young dragons, or dragonets, have "wingbuds". When I saw that those caterpillars had wings I thought "Tui was right. Wingbuds exist". Completely unrelated and I doubt Tui Sutherland knew about this but that's pretty cool.

  • Journey's Fable says:

    Learn to paint like CRISPR

  • aggin maria james says:


  • Soznation says:

    Pardon my ignorance but isnt this the technique that the chinese scientist used on babies that got him in alot of trouble?.

  • Pjenter Mac memes says:

    This episode is absolutely stunning, just wonderful. The way we can change those beautiful creatures wings and get a better understanding of our own development out of it. By distorting their blueprint we can understand ourself so much better. That is what I love about biologie.

    I also love the package of delivering the amazing information. Of the narration, camera shot, music choice and so much more. Keep doing what you guys are doing.

  • DIO Brando says:

    I’m only curious what can make humans blue

  • Ricky Bobby says:

    Just found this channel 2 videos ago, have now sat my 11 yr old down to watch this video and she is fascinated , thankyou for the quality content

  • Arashi Mokuzai says:

    No larva or butterflies were harmed in the making of this video, 5:15 No cutting it open doesn't hurt it, 5:35, It doesn't actually need that wing.

  • Danette Bear-Ett says:

    I am curious, did someone take the research to the next realm, specifically the behavioral realm. Wondering if the mutant butterflies would pick other mutants as their mates or if they would be attracted to non mutants of the original species? Also if non mutants would sexually shun the mutants of their species, presumably because having different color patterns would make the mutants a greater target for predators to single out, and therefore a poor genetic choice for the furtherance of their species? Since we as intelligent beings we have learned every action has a reaction. It seems to me that any research project in biology/genetics /botany etc. should always have a dual purpose that will yield results on at least two fronts. Physiological and behavioral. The later being an offshoot of the first. We may not know it at the time, but it may illuminate areas that need more study. Because we do often recognize that specific biological traits influence our behavior in many observable ways and some more subtle way that we may miss. I just think it would be a more wise use of money for research if we more broadly study an area than dismantling a study upon completion, then having to reconstruct it because we need both sides of the story to answer a tangential question on another subject.
    Just saying….

  • RozuRules says:

    This is cruel

  • Kunay Flores says:

    U will rot in the dark corners of hell for playing wit gods creation

  • Luv Wegad says:

    I love how Joe explains things

  • Miljenko Brkić says:

    "I'm gonna go crisp up some butterflies." – Deep fry that s**t

  • Why Do I Exist says:

    A butterfly just randomly landed on my hand and starting licking me the other day

  • Christopher Craven says:

    Use Mars as a testing ground for lab designed species.

  • Raymond Ross says:

    It doesn't take a great stretch of imagination on how this could be used to make genetically modified humans. Think of this like Madame Curie discovering radiation, only to result in massive life loss in WW2 when the US dropped 2 atomic bombs in Japan. Science, unfortunately, can be used for nefarious reasons. I'm not depressed about this: I am extremely interested; but I know also know, too, that there are bad minds in this world we call home.

  • mike archer says:

    ON accident? try BY accident phd candidate

  • X Gen says:

    Call me when the butterflies are ready to do my evil bidding.

  • BunnyFett says:

    This video means so much to me. Thank you for making this.

  • Foo Bar says:

    Very cool – glad to hear the ethics message at the end.

  • Darren Bauer says:

    What would be really impressive is if he painted his own face on the butterflies, and released them into the wild. Or an advertisement. ..

    Like a cow with the Burger King logo on the side, or got milk…

  • bobbycone2 says:

    I can imagine companies that modify butterflies for weddings and other events with custom wings on them. I think the guy said it best. Should we do that if we discover that we can.

  • christine says:

    I worked in a different lab at GW and we borrowed Arnaud's imaging machine to take precise pictures of ant heads!!

  • crzykoment says:

    always great content and effort man. its ok to be smart. keep it up

  • Tessa T says:

    My dad and my niece went to GWU.

  • June Blankenship says:

    lol inb4 butterflies with ads on them.

  • Uneti Tree says:

    22 degrees is plain cold for us from the tropics xD… heck I can't even bare 25 degrees in a Car.

  • Dan says:

    I'm sure Joe is smart enough to realize that even though the current reality of crispr technology and its applications are largely exploratory and only applicable to insects or other low/non sentient isolated organisms, that exploratory science is laying the foundation for a future where this technology eventually can be used on humans. We're still a long way away from that, but it seems to be a reasonable eventuality to anticipate.
    I think Arnaud has the right idea about the potential future applications of this technology. Knowledge is power, and with great power comes great responsibility.

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