Qingyou Xia Talks About Silkworm Research

Emerging Research FRonts Commentary, February 2011

Qingyou Xia

Article: A draft sequence for the genome of the domesticated silkworm (Bombyx mori)

A draft sequence for the genome of the domesticated silkworm (Bombyx mori) Authors: Xia, QY, et al.
Journal: SCIENCE, 306 (5703): 1937-1940 DEC 10 2004
Addresses: SW Agr Univ, Chongqing Beibei 400716, Peoples R China.
SW Agr Univ, Chongqing Beibei 400716, Peoples R China.
Chinese Acad Sci, Beijing Genom Inst, Beijing Proteom Inst, Beijing 101300, Peoples R China.
(Addresses have been truncated)

Qingyou Xia talks with ScienceWatch.com and answers a few questions about this month's Emerging Research Front paper in the field of Molecular Biology & Genetics.

SW: Why do you think your paper is highly cited?

Silkworm (Bombyx mori) is not only one of the most economically important insects, but also a best-characterized model for Lepidopteran insects. Our work established a foundation for silkworm functional research on the molecular level at a genomic scale. Free access to our data assists investigators to solve many interesting puzzles in silkworm and other Lepidopteran insects.

SW: Does it describe a new discovery, methodology, or synthesis of knowledge?

It is the largest genomic sequencing by the whole-genome shot-gun technique and the first draft sequence for a Lepidopteran insect at the time this paper came out.

We identified sets of important genes involved in different physiological behaviors of silkworm, such as development and metamorphosis, wing patterning, sex-determination, and immunity. Particularly, we discovered more than 1,000 genes which were not previously reported are actively taking part in silk production. And the comparison of our data with that of fruitfly, mosquito, or butterflies provided insight into the genomic divergence between species.

SW: Would you summarize the significance of your paper in layman's terms?

Both professional researchers and common people, have great interests in silkworm's spinning silk. The organ that synthesizes silk also attracts attention, since it is considered to be very powerful in protein production. Would the silk gland be used as a bioreactor? Besides its commercial value, silkworm, as a model species, would be used as a reference for functional studies of other Lepidopteran insects, and to construct human disease models to explore the pathogenesis or test therapeutic treatment, as has been done on fruitfly.

"I anticipate our data would help to develop new silkworm strains that are more resistant to common pathogens or produce silk fibers with high yield and good quality..."

In the past, because of the lack of basic data for silkworm, it was difficult to carry out functional studies, not to mention other biological applications. Our data, for the first time, provides the foundation for those researches.

SW: How did you become involved in this research, and how would you describe the particular challenges, setbacks, and successes that you've encountered along the way?

I worked in the Division of Sericulture at Sichuan Academy of Agricultural Sciences for 10 years before I went to obtain my Ph.D. at Southwest Agriculture University. I deeply understand the influence of the silk industry or culture to my country and what silkworm breeders expect.

After I finished my post-doctoral training at Kyushu University (Japan) in 2001, I came back to establish the silkworm functional study platforms. My group completed sequencing of more than 100,000 ESTs in 2002. Then I realized a faster and more efficient technique should be applied for the whole genome. Thus we collaborated with Beijing Genome Institution (BGI) to launch this project in 2003.

The main challenge is how to design a good sequencing strategy that could generate data for fast and accurate assembly. We constructed two libraries with inserts at size of 2 Kb or 8 Kb, in this way the shot-gun technique was combined with chromosome-walking, giving sets of data that could be tested reciprocally.

We also improved a sequence assembly modeling system to assemble the reads and developed a gene-finder algorithm to predict genes. 

SW: Where do you see your research leading in the future?

Silk production, developmental metamorphosis, and immunity are three major focuses in entomological research. The mechanism of gene regulation, hormone-controlled organogenesis and apoptosis, and the interaction between insects and environment are the underlying questions for which scientists are persistently looking for answers. We have been working on these questions using the genome sequence data combined with other biological tools, and anticipate providing some solutions.

We are also thinking about exploiting some genes that have been found to be critical for silkworm biological processes to improve the silk production or develop new insect-control strategies. And the silk gland, which is considered to be the most powerful bioreactor, could be engineered to synthesize other proteins. All of these would be based on gene identification and characterization.

SW: Do you foresee any social or political implications for your research?

I anticipate our data would help to develop new silkworm strains that are more resistant to common pathogens or produce silk fibers with high yield and good quality, which could benefit people involved in silk industries in some developing countries, such as China or India.

If the silk could be bestowed with more intensity or some special features, it might be applied to clinical, defensive, or cosmetic use. The silk gland would be bioengineered to produce drugs, vaccines, or other proteins according to the therapeutic requirement. Furthermore, the safe and effective pest-control strategy based on silkworm research would have great environmental and economic implications.End

Qingyou Xia
The Key Sericultural Laboratory of Agricultural Ministry
The Key Laboratory for Sericultural Sciences and Genomics of the Ministry of Education
Southwest University
Chongqing, China



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