The researchers, led by Wendell L. Roelofs, the Liberty Hyde Bailey Professor of Insect Biochemistry at Cornell, made the discovery while examining ways to keep European corn borers from mating, multiplying and then chewing up farmers' fields. They discovered the existence of a previously undetected gene, the delta-14, that can regulate the attractant chemicals produced in sex-pheromone glands of female borers. The gene can be suddenly switched on, changing the pheromone components that females use to attract males for mating.
The entomologists have demonstrated that insects evolve chemical systems in leaps rather than in minute stages, as had been previously assumed. The researchers also discovered that there are rare males in the corn borer population -- about 1 in 200 -- capable of responding to chemicals produced by the delta-14 gene.
"This is one way that insects become new species," says Roelofs, whose paper, "Evolution of moth sex pheromones via ancestral genes," will be published on the web site of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (Sept. 9-15, 2002.) The Cornell co-authors on the paper are: Weitian Liu, research associate in entomology; Guixia Hao, postdoctoral researcher in entomology; Hongmei Jiao, laboratory technician in entomology; and Charles E. Linn Jr., senior research associate in entomology. Alejandro P. Rooney, Mississippi State University assistant professor in biological sciences also contributed to the paper. The research was funded by the National Science Foundation and will continue to be funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Nation
Contact: Blaine P. Friedlander, Jr.
Cornell University News Service