COLUMBUS , Ohio Many insects living in northern climates don't die at the first signs of cold weather. Rather, new research suggests that they use a number of specialized proteins to survive the chilly months.
These so-called "heat-shock proteins" ensure that the insects will be back to bug us come spring.
A study of flesh flies and a handful of other insects suggests that they have an arsenal of protective heat-shock proteins that are turned on almost as soon as the temperature dips. Until this new study, researchers knew of only two such proteins that were activated in flesh flies during cooler weather.
"Insects need heat-shock proteins in order to survive," said David Denlinger, the study's lead author and a professor of entomology at Ohio State University. "Without these proteins, insects can't bear the cold and will ultimately die."
Denlinger and his colleagues found nearly a dozen additional heat-shock proteins that are activated during diapause, a hibernation-like state that insects enter when temperatures drop. Insects can stay in this state of arrested development for several months.
"We certainly didn't expect to find that many proteins active during diapause," Denlinger said. The researchers report their findings in the current online early edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Insects and other animals, including humans, produce heat-shock proteins in response to extremely high temperatures. The proteins are so named because they were initially discovered in fruit flies that were exposed to high heat. Humans make these proteins when we run a high fever.
"But insects make these very same stress proteins during times of low temperature as well as during exposure to high levels of toxic chemicals, dehydration and even desiccation," Denlinger said.