From: Allison Winter, ENN
Published February 22, 2013 10:02 AM

Mutated Moth Genes May Lead to Environmentally Friendly Pest Control

Pheromones are chemical substances secreted or excreted by species that when released into the environment can affect the behavior or physiology of others. Basically, these chemicals trigger social responses and are crucial to the mating systems in a wide range of organisms.

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According to a new study led by researchers from Sweden's Lund University, a single gene mutation found in the moth genus, Ostrinia, has led to the species' ability to produce an entirely new scent.

Male moths have the ability to pick up the scent of a female moth from a distance of several hundred meters. As females produce sexual pheromones, the males are guided to them by the scent substances. Most of the 180,000 species of moth and butterfly in the world communicate using pheromones so small differences between the different scents is crucial in order for males to find females of their own species.

Researchers at Lund University have previously shown that new species of moth can evolve as a result of changes in the female moths' scent. Now the researchers have published a study on how these changes come about at genetic level by examining one of the genes that controls the production of pheromones. Simply put, the mutation and a substituted amino acid in an enzyme result in a new scent substance. The enzyme is active in the process that converts fatty acids into alcohols, which constitute the ingredients in many moth scents.

"Our results show that a single mutation, which leads to the substitution of a critical amino acid, is sufficient to create a new pheromone blend", says Professor Christer Löfstedt from the Department of Biology at Lund University.

Looking at the big picture, researchers say that the results could contribute to tailored production of pheromones for pest control.

Unlike conventional pesticides, pheromones , do not damage other animals, nor do they pose health risks to people. Instead, they are responsible for disrupting the reproductive cycle of harmful insects. They also can be used to lure the pests into traps that can help farmers track insect population growth and reduce the amount of insecticide they use.

"Pheromones are already one of the most frequently used methods for environmentally friendly pest control", says Christer Löfstedt. "With this knowledge, we hope in the future to be able to tailor the production of pheromones in yeast cells and plants to develop a cheap and environmentally friendly production process."

See more at Lund University.

Moth image via Shutterstock.

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