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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Five years, 5000 Insects: Scientists Collaborate to Unravel Arthropod DNA

Published: August 11, 2012


By Daniel Gross


Genomic data from insects like the corn earworm (Helicoverpa Zea) may help farmers fight infestation (Photo: cyanocorax – Creative Commons).

Scientists are working together to map 5000 important insect genomes – online and worldwide.

By Daniel Gross

Entomologists across the globe have announced a project to map the genes of 5000 insect species in the next five years.

Members of the “i5K Insect and other Arthropod Genome Sequencing Initiative” are currently nominating species to study on a user-edited Wiki.

Species will be selected for their importance to fields like agriculture, medicine, energy, and biological research. The 100 nominated so far include pests like the destructive corn earworm and pollinators like the now-threatened honeybee.

By selecting a broad range of arthropods (which include insects and crustaceans), i5K could sharpen our understanding of taxonomy and evolution. Drawing from a range of classes of arthropods might clear up gray areas of classification, like where to place the extinct trilobite.

i5K could also have sweeping effects on insect control if it sheds light on disease transmission or chemical sensitivity. For example, sequencing could illuminate genes that code for “detox” enzymes. Knowing how insects resist a pesticide could help scientists improve it.

Its relevance to farming helps explain why half the project’s ten-person launch group is affiliated with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Kevin Hackett of the USDA’s Agricultural Research Survey told Living on Earth that i5K could target a swath of “societal challenges” like biofuel production and food safety, both of which are affected by pests. He added that some applications of i5K could be completely novel, like using understanding “insect roles in carbon sequestration and digesting methane” and using “arthropod sensory receptors as detectors for biodefense.”

But first, the project needs input from the scientists who can use this information. That means expanding beyond its current 129 members and connecting with entomologists already working on relevant projects. So far, scientists have signed on from Berlin and Taipei to Tel Aviv and Barcelona.

A similar project called Genome 10K started unspooling the DNA of 10,000 vertebrate species in 2009.

Professor of biology Susan Brown of Kansas State University told Living on Earth that project leaders envision yearly workshops and meetings to aid collaboration. She said right now, they’re setting standards and criteria for future sequencing.

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