An international team of researchers was able to sequence the genome of the Tobacco Hornworm and analyze its DNA. The genome trial allowed scientists to understand this species better, and it could lead to a way for humans to harness the worm’s immunodefense system.
The Tobacco Hornworm, also known as the “hungry caterpillar” has been in the eye of science for a long time. The worm’s physiology has made scientists wonder how its immunodefense system works, now thanks to its sequenced DNA, researchers can study it deeply. The research was led by Kansas State University.
However, the investigation has held by over 114 researchers in 11 different countries. Michael Kanost, a biochemistry professor, commanded the study. The research was published in the journal Insect Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, and it’s open to the public so scientists can provide new insight to the study.
“This project represents years of collaborative research across the world, we wanted to provide these valuable data to scientists,” said lead author Michael Kanost in a press release statement.
Why the Tobacco Hornworm?
The caterpillar is also known in science as the “Manduca sexta” and it’s recognized for eating so much before growing and turning into the Carolina Sphinx Moth, which lives in North, South and Central America.
The Manduca Sexta moth has become popular in the science world, especially in neurobiology since it has an accessible nervous system and a short circle of life of 5o days.
During its larvae stage, the tobacco hornworm is kept as a pet by children and showed in science explanations. The name “Manduca” actually means glutton in Latin, which explains the worm’s nickname. The nickname ‘hungry caterpillar’ is given to the worm because of its ferocious hunger on its larvae stage. Gardeners and agricultural workers always fight the caterpillar because it feeds on their plants and vegetables.
The Tobacco Hornworm commonly eats eggplants, potatoes, tomato plants and pepper plants; that’s why gardeners consider the worm to be a pest, yet it’s hard to control de caterpillar’s hungriness. When a pest is found in the agricultural market, gardeners and workers rely on chemicals and insecticides to prevent little worms from eating their crop.
Regardless of the type of pesticide used in said plants, the Tobacco Hornworm is almost immune to the vast majority of this chemicals. The worm’s immunity is what has scientists so interested in the hornworm’s physiology.
The immune properties found in the Tobacco Hornworm has caused Professor Kanost, who studies insect immune systems, to get deeply interested in the caterpillar’s structure for decades.
The Hornworm’s genome investigation
Kanost along with Gary Blissard from Cornell University started the research seven years ago and decided to make it an international collaboration between scientists from all over the world.
Since the Tobacco Hornworm was an unusual species, researchers determined that sequencing the caterpillar’s DNA would be the best way of obtaining all the information on the worm. Sequencing a genome is gathering tissue samples of the species.
When performing a sequence, scientists can obtain a similar line to the original genome and even analyze its atomic-level structure. This process results in a very specific investigation that provides answers about the species molecular biology, neurobiology, and physiology.
The Kansas State University team, led by Kanost, purified the DNA sample of the caterpillar and sent it to the Baylor College of Medicine Human Genome Sequencing Center, located in Houston to perform the sequencing.
Researchers were especially carefully on extracting DNA information of every stage in the Tobacco Hornworm’s life, to determine when each gene develops and in what tissues and organs are they located.
After the gene was sequenced, the team focused on identifying the proteins on the caterpillar especially those in its blood and tissues. This allows scientists to understand the worm’s defense system. Scientists were able to comprehend, that some of the proteins in the worm’s blood are the same in humans.
“The same kind of proteins exist in caterpillar blood and human blood, these proteins have similar functions on the immune system,” said Kanost.
By understanding the proteins in the caterpillar, scientists can look at the differences and similarities between the worm’s immunity functions and humans immunodefense system.
The research also opens the door for all sorts of investigations and discoveries, including the development of a correct insect pest management for gardeners as well as understanding the species molecular biology.
“We’re continuing to study the immune system and the proteins that make the exoskeleton, now it is easier to identify the proteins using the gene sequences, and we can use it to make insect proteins in bacteria for biochemical studies,” said Kanost in a press release.
Source: Science Direct