The genome of a very hungry and "gluttonous" caterpillar known as the tobacco hornworm has been successfully sequenced by a team of international scientists.

The Kansas State University-led research team has made the details of their genome sequence study available to the public in the hopes of opening up new research.

"This project represents years of collaborative research across the world," says Professor Michael Kanost, a biochemistry expert from Kansas State and lead author of the genome study.

Tobacco Hornworm Caterpillar

The tobacco hornworm (Manduca sexta) earned the moniker "gluttonous caterpillar" because it eats so much before growing into the Carolina sphinx moth. The name Manduca means "glutton" in Latin.

This hungry caterpillar, which is often found in the North, South and Central America, is considered a pest to gardeners. The insect chows on the leaves of tomato plants, and also feasts on eggplants, potato and pepper plants, scientists said.

Weeds and crops from this plant family produce chemicals that prevent most insects from feeding on them, but not the tobacco hornworm. Scientists have become particularly interested on the caterpillar because of its physiology.

Sequencing The Caterpillar's Genome

Professor Kanost has been studying the tobacco hornworm for decades. He and study co-author Gary Blissard of Cornell University decided to start the collaborative research to sequence the tobacco hornworm's genome about seven years ago.

The tobacco hornworm is a good model species to study because of its large size, which can stretch up to 4 inches (10 centimeters) long. This allows scientists to easily gather tissue samples from the caterpillar.

The new research looks into the proteins in the caterpillar's blood and how these insects protect themselves against infections. Kanost and his team purified the DNA of the caterpillar and sent samples to the Baylor College of Medicine Human Genome Sequencing Center for the genome sequencing.

According to Kanost, some of the same kind of proteins are present in both caterpillar and human blood. What's more, these proteins possess the same kind of functions in the immune system.

Implications

Kanost says that by sequencing and studying the genome of the tobacco hornworm, scientists can compare the similarities and differences between humans and caterpillars in the evolution and function of immunity.

Furthermore, the new study may also lead to the development of new methods for insect pest management, as well as the improvement of physiology, neurobiology and molecular biology research.

Meanwhile, now that the genome of the tobacco hornworm is sequenced, Kanost and his colleagues can use proteomics — the study of proteins — to identify proteins in the blood and tissues of the caterpillar. Scientists can use the sequenced genome to make insect proteins for biochemical studies.

Details of the new report are published in the journal Insect Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.

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