Hormone's role in insects could give insight for cancer treatment, malnutrition

Starvation typically has dire consequences for an organism's growth. In the tobacco hawkmoth, tissues starved during the last stage of larval development stop growing because they lack the proper nutrients.

But new research shows that in the caterpillar of the moth, also known as Manduca sexta, tissues called imaginal discs, which give rise to structures such as the legs and eyes, form and grow despite severe starvation unless a substance called juvenile hormone is present. The hormone inhibits signals needed for imaginal discs to form and develop into their specified organs in the adult moth.

"You can almost think of the imaginal discs as acting like tumors," said James Truman, a University of Washington biology professor. "Without juvenile hormone, the discs can form and grow at the expense of the rest of the animal, but in the presence of the hormone their growth is coordinated with that of the entire insect."

The findings could have implications for anti-cancer agents as well as for understanding the basis of long-term effects of early infant malnutrition.

The husband-wife team of Truman and Lynn Riddiford, also a UW biology professor, discovered the phenomenon, which is described in a paper published in the June 2 edition of the journal Science. Other authors of the paper are Kiyoshi Hiruma of Hirosaki University in Japan; David Champlin of the University of Southern Maine; and two of Champlin's undergraduate students, Paul Allee and Steven MacWhinnie.

Typically, juvenile hormone declines in the last larval stage, allowing imaginal discs to form and begin developing into adult legs, eyes and antennae. Starvation normally causes higher levels of juvenile hormone during the last larval stage. But when the researchers removed glands called the corpora allata, which produce juvenile hormone, imaginal discs developed and grew despite the fact the larvae were being starved, though growth was slower than normal.

The rese

Contact: Vince Stricherz
University of Washington

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