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Secret behind hard exoskeletons, spreading wings revealed

A team of biologists has discovered the structure and genetic sequence of the hormone that makes insects develop their hard outer shells and allows them to spread their wings. The findings answer more than 40 years of questions about insect development.

Using the fruit fly, the researchers determined the genetic sequence of the hormone bursicon, confirmed that it is responsible for the hardening of the soft exoskeleton after each molt of an insect as it grows into adulthood, and discovered that it is also responsible for enabling developing insects to spread their wings. The research was published July 13 in the journal Current Biology by Vanderbilt University biologists Hans-Willi Honegger and Elisabeth Dewey and researchers at Cornell University and the University of Washington, Seattle.

Honegger expects this research and ongoing studies to identify the receptor for bursicon to open new doors for pest control.

"Bursicon is absolutely necessary for insect survival. When you know the receptor and you know the hormone, you can produce an inhibitor which fits to the receptor," he explained. "It would act only on insects that are in the process of molting, so you could time it precisely to the time that specific pest insects are molting. This is especially applicable to epidemic outbreaks of pest insects like migratory locusts which molt synchronously by the thousands."

The unassuming fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster, has long been a critical player in biological research. The same characteristics that make it maddening in your kitchen--small size, prolific reproduction and rapid growth--make it a perfect model for studying genetics and development. It has been the focus of research by thousands of scientists for more than 100 years.

Despite such rigorous study, the genetic structure of one of the key hormones involved in the fruit fly's development, bursicon, remained unknown.

"Bursicon was first discovered in 1935.
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Contact: Melanie Catania
melanie.catania@vanderbilt.edu
615-322-7970
Vanderbilt University
12-Jul-2004


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