Complete genome of Pieris rapae, a resilient alien, a cabbage pest, and a source of anti-cancer proteins

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The Small Cabbage White (Pieris rapae) is originally a Eurasian butterfly. Being accidentally introduced into North America, Australia, and New Zealand a century or more ago, it spread throughout the continents and rapidly established as one of the most abundant butterfly species. Although it is a serious pest of cabbage and other mustard family plants with its caterpillars reducing crops to stems, it is also a source of pierisin, a protein unique to the Whites that shows cytotoxicity to cancer cells. To better understand the unusual biology of this omnipresent agriculturally and medically important butterfly, we sequenced and annotated the complete genome from USA specimens. At 246 Mbp, it is among the smallest Lepidoptera genomes reported to date. While 1.5% positions in the genome are heterozygous, they are distributed highly non-randomly along the scaffolds, and nearly 20% of longer than 1000 base-pair segments are SNP-free (median length: 38000 bp). Computational simulations of population evolutionary history suggest that American populations started from a very small number of introduced individuals, possibly a single fertilized female, which is in agreement with historical literature. Comparison to other Lepidoptera genomes reveals several unique families of proteins that may contribute to the unusual resilience of Pieris. The nitrile-specifier proteins divert the plant defense chemicals to non-toxic products. The apoptosis-inducing pierisins could offer a defense mechanism against parasitic wasps. While only two pierisins from Pieris rapae were characterized before, the genome sequence revealed eight, offering additional candidates as anti-cancer drugs. The reference genome we obtained lays the foundation for future studies of the Cabbage White and other Pieridae species.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number2631
StatePublished - 2016


  • Butterfly genomics
  • Crop pest
  • Invasive species
  • Pieridae
  • Population history

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology
  • General Immunology and Microbiology
  • Pharmacology, Toxicology and Pharmaceutics(all)


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