Scientists unlock secrets of the sting
Scientists studying the genome of the killer wasp may have found better ways to control insect pests such as the house fly.
A large team of biologists from around the world, including Dr David Shuker at the University of St Andrews, studied species commonly known as `jewel wasps’ – small but deadly wasps that sting and inject poisonous venom into their prey.
The research, published by the journal Science today (Friday 15 January 2009), has resulted in the successful sequencing of the genomes of three parasitic wasp species belonging to the Nasonia genus.
Dr Shuker, a Research Fellow at the University’s School of Biology, explained, “Although for many of us wasps are big, yellow and black, and uninvited guests at picnics and barbecues, many thousands of species of wasps are small, unobtrusive, and deadly.
“Fortunately, these less familiar wasps kill other insects rather than us, and in doing so lend humans a big hand in controlling unwanted pests and making natural ecosystems work properly.”
Up until now, Nasonia has been studied by biologists primarily interested in its behaviour and evolutionary biology – the new genome sequencing allows scientists to explore the genes and genetic networks underlying these behaviours.
“This is especially important, as many of the things we have been interested in, such as how wasps choose their prey, or how many male and female offspring they produce, are just the sorts of traits we need to understand in order to improve our use of parasitic wasps as biological control agents of pests,” Dr Shuker explained.
The role of the St Andrews research team was to help develop a vast array of genetic markers, or `signposts’, which allowed the sequencing team to understand how the many thousands of DNA sequences produced fitted together to make a whole genome.
Dr Shuker said, “The genome sequences give us amazing new resources for understanding wasp reproduction at a mechanistic level, as well as in terms of how wasp reproductive behaviour evolved.”
The researchers were also interested in the `fascinating¿ qualities of the sting of the killer wasp. Dr Shuker added, “Parasitoid venoms do all sorts of amazing things to their prey, altering the host’s metabolism, shutting down its immune system, and generally preparing the host to be consumed by the growing larvae of the wasp. All these changes to a host’s physiology that a wasp manages to control by its venom might identify unexpected new avenues for drug development.”
The international collaboration was led by Jack Werren, Professor of Biology at the University of Rochester, and Stephen Richards at the Human Genome Sequencing Centre at the Baylor College of Medicine, both in the US.
Understanding the wasps themselves may only be the beginning according to Stephen Richards at Baylor College of Medicine.
He commented, “In human genetics we are trying to understand the genetic basis for quantitative differences between people such as height, drug interactions and susceptibility to disease. These genome sequences of Nasonia allow us to cheaply and easily answer these important questions in an insect system, and then follow up any insights in humans.”
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