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Last Updated: Wednesday, 22 October 2003, 04:50 GMT 05:50 UK
Beetle enters genome spotlight
Red flour beetle, KSU
Red flour beetle: Its DNA will be decoded
The red flour beetle, a simple grain pest, is to have its genetic make-up decoded by scientists in the US.

The multi-million-dollar project will use spare capacity on gene-reading machines that have finished deciphering the human "book of life".

The beetle has been selected because of its usefulness as a tool to study basic biological processes and to help develop new anti-pest measures.

All the beetle's genetic data will be posted on the net and free to access.

"As long as we have had domesticated wheat and have been storing any kind of grain in bins, there have been flour beetles. They're pests," said Dr Susan Brown, from Kansas State University, who will lead the Red Flour Beetle Genome Project.

The double-stranded DNA molecule is held together by chemical components called bases
Adenine (A) bonds with thymine (T); cytosine(C) bonds with guanine (G)
Groupings of these letters form the "code of life"; there are estimated to be about 200 million base pairs in the beetle genome wound into 11 distinct bundles, or chromosomes
Written in the DNA are thousands of genes which beetle cells use as templates to make proteins; these sophisticated molecules build and maintain the insect's body
Ease of use

But Brown and colleagues have been working for many years to show how these destructive insects - their scientific name is Tribolium castaneum - can actually be used in the laboratory to test fundamental ideas in biology, such as how legs develop in the embryo.

Mice, nematode worms and fruit flies are also used as lab "models" and just like these animals, the flour beetle will now have its genes fully mapped and read to aid the work of scientists.

"Most of the insects that are of agronomic or of medical importance are difficult to manipulate genetically in the laboratory," Brown told BBC News Online.

"There are things we can do in this beetle that we can't do in the fruit fly for example."

The flour beetle is quite distantly related to fruit flies, so the genetic information should tell researchers a great deal about the evolution of insects - the most abundant animal grouping on Earth.

Pest defence

But there are also likely to be major human-health spin-offs. By comparing beetle genes with human ones, scientists will get closer to understanding the causes of some diseases in people.

Fly, BBC
The insect fruit fly has already been decoded
In addition, there are some anti-bacterial and anti-fungal chemicals produced by beetles that may form the basis of new medicines.

Having a complete beetle genome should make it easier to exploit this biomedical potential.

And knowing the structure of the entire genome will provide scientists with many new targets to control the insect pests that do so much damage to our food crops and products, says Brown.

"Just as studying the free-living soil nematode has been beneficial to understanding parasitic nematodes, learning and understanding the basic biology of this beetle will help us to fight other pest beetles."

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