A fat, green caterpillar just helped scientists big time

A fat, green caterpillar just helped scientists big time

The tobacco hornworm may unlock many secrets of insect biology, and scientists just successfully sequenced its genome.

An international team of scientists have just sequenced the genome of the tobacco hornworm moth, a project involving 114 scientists from 50 research institutions around the world, according to a Swiss Institute of Bioinformatics statement. It’s a fascinating green and very large caterpillar known as Manduca sexta that turns into the Carolina sphinx moth, and is often considered a major agricultural pest  that destroys tobacco, potato, tomato and pepper plants.

But it’s also extremely important scientifically, as it is a model species for studying the physiology, biochemistry and molecular biology of insects, so the fact that scientists have managed to sequence its genome could have huge implications for insect research.

It’s a project that’s been in the works for a long time, beginning in 2009, and scientists have published their findings exploring 420 megabasepair genome and its 15,451 encoded genes in the journal Insect Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.

Why is Manduca sexta such a model species for biochemistry and physiology experiments for insects? Its large size has a lot to do with it — the larvae can grow to up to 10 cm long and weigh more than 10 grams, making it easy to grow in the laboratory.

Now that the tobacco hornworm’s genome has been sequences, researchers will be able to understand its genetic components and processes so they can better understand its biology and behavior. And it also helps them understand other species.

“Manduca sexta has a long history of being used as a model species for classical biochemistry and physiology experiments spanning many different areas of research,” the university’s statement reads. “‘Manduca’ from the Latin for ‘glutton’ emphasizes how the hungry caterpillars can quickly consume several plants to reach such sizes, and ‘sexta’ for the six orange spots along the moth’s abdomen. Such laboratory studies have facilitated great advances in our understanding of many biological processes such as animal development and insect metamorphosis, immune system functions and their roles in interactions with pathogens, the chemistry behind the wars waged between pest insects and the plants on which they feed, as well as many other aspects of insect biochemistry, physiology, and behaviour.

“The sequencing and annotation of the tobacco hornworm genome now allows researchers to pinpoint some of the underlying genetic components of the processes that they have been studying – to hunt down the genes or genomic regions that are responsible for the observed effects on the biology and behaviour of this important insect,” the statement adds.

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