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Mapping of wasp genome to help fight pests, disease

January 14, 2010 -- Wasps -- not the nuisance yellow jacket kind, but tiny parasitic jewel wasps -- are the latest creatures to have their genome deciphered by scientists. A team of researchers, including SF State biologists, has mapped the complete DNA sequences for three wasp species and their results will aid the analysis of such complex genetic traits, as skin color, as well as harmful human diseases.

Photo of a wasp from the Nasonia genus stinging a fly pupal host and laying eggs within it.

A female wasp from the Nasonia genus stings a fly pupal host and lays eggs within it. Photo by Peter Koomen and Mathijs Zwier, courtesy of Leo Beukeboom (University of Groningen)

Published in the journal Science, the genome sequences may also help advance our understanding of how to use parasitic wasps as natural agents against agricultural pests and disease-carrying insects. The study examined three species in the Nasonia genus, miniscule wasps a quarter of the size of a fruit fly. They lay their eggs on other insects, such as ticks or cockroaches, which then hatch and kill the host creature. This new genetic information could provide insight into the kind of insect hosts different wasp species prefer and how their venom works.

"These genome sequences will be a major tool for agricultural pest control," said Chris Smith, assistant professor of biology, and one of the study's authors. "Many people may not realize how dependent humans are on these tiny wasps, which protect our food crops and save the U.S. billions of dollars each year by reducing crop loss."

Smith led a team that identified repeat sequences in the wasps' DNA that may have otherwise been misidentified and counted as genes. These virus-like elements replicate themselves throughout the genome and were long dismissed by scientists as "junk DNA" because they appeared to serve no purpose for the host. Many scholars now believe these elements may provide raw genetic material that cells use to create the building blocks of new genes.

Smith and SF State students Henry Hunter and Jay Kim were part of an international research team, led by Professor John Werren of the University of Rochester.

-- Elaine Bible


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