Jack Werren on Using Parasitic Wasps “Smart Bombs"

New Hot Paper Commentary, September 2010

Jack Werren

Article Title: Functional and Evolutionary Insights from the Genomes of Three Parasitoid Nasonia Species

Authors: Werren, JH, et al.
Journal: SCIENCE, Volume: 327, Issue: 5963, Page: 343-348, Year: JAN 15 2010
Addresses:* Univ Rochester, Dept Biol, Rochester, NY 14627 USA.
* Baylor Coll Med, Human Genome Sequencing Ctr, Houston, TX 77030 USA.
* Arizona State Univ, Sch Life Sci, Tempe, AZ 85287 USA.
* Indiana Univ, Ctr Genom & Bioinformat, Bloomington, IN 47405 USA. .
(Addresses have been truncated)
(Commentary for July 2010, [late entry])

Jack Werren talks with ScienceWatch.com and answers a few questions about this month's New Hot Papers paper in the field of Plant & Animal Science.

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

Parasitic wasps are important insects that are used in biological control of pests and that are emerging as genetic models. The paper presents the first sequenced genomes for three parasitic wasps in the genus Nasonia, and combines both functional and evolutionary analyses. Therefore, the work is of interest to a broad audience of biologists. Like other genome projects, this one has provided a wealth of information for diverse research endeavors, which has resulted in additional recent publications.

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

The genome study has revealed that the wasp have picked up new functional genes from Pox viruses and bacteria, have a complex repertoire of venom proteins of potential pharmacological use, lost genes involved in amino acid synthesis presumably due to their carnivorous diet, like mammals utilize DNA methylation, and that co-evolving mitochondria and interacting nuclear genes (e.g. in the electron transport chain and mitochondrial ribosome) result in incompatibilities that contribute to reproductive isolation among the species. 

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

"Parasitic wasps can be thought of as “smart bombs” that seek out and kill pest insects. Improvements in the use of parasitic wasps in biological pest control can provide a number of societal benefits, including reduction in our dependence on chemical pesticides."
Parasitic wasps are extremely important insects that play a major role in controlling pests in nature, but because many of them are very small (e.g. smaller than the head of a pin), most people are unaware of their existence. This project has opened up new opportunities to use these insects in basic and medical research, for drug discovery, and in biological control of pests.

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 originally became interested in Nasonia and parasitoids in general as a graduate student, due to their amazing ability to control the sex of their offspring. One thing has led to another, and now I am immersed in genetic, genomic, and evolutionary studies using these insects.

Their amazing biology has yielded a number of gems, from discovery of adaptive control of offspring sex, to extremely selfish genetic elements, a potential role of symbiotic bacteria in animal speciation, and lateral gene transfers from bacteria to animals. With the genome project and new genetic tools, Nasonia are also emerging as a useful genetic model, which is quite exciting.

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

Due to their haplo-diploidy (males develop from unfertilized haploid eggs), short generation time and development of genetic and genomic tools from this project, Nasonia show potential as an emerging genetic system, particularly for complex genetic trait analysis, evolutionary, and developmental genetics.

The discovery of DNA methylation in Nasonia, which is absent in the standard insect model Drosophila but used in mammals for gene regulation, opens up the possibility of Nasonia becoming an insect model for epigenetic gene regulation by DNA methylation.

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

Parasitic wasps can be thought of as "smart bombs" that seek out and kill pest insects. Improvements in the use of parasitic wasps in biological pest control can provide a number of societal benefits, including reduction in our dependence on chemical pesticides. The genetic information from Nasonia can inform efforts to improve parasitoid wasps in biological pest control.End

Jack Werren
Biology Department
University of Rochester
Rochester, NY, USA



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