How one pest adapted to life in the dark

December 20, 2007

A type of beetle that lives its entire life burrowing through stored grain has been found to lack full colour vision, and what's more the vision it does have breaks the rules. Most other insects have trichromatic vision - they are sensitive to ultraviolet, blue and long wavelength light. In a report published in the online open access journal Frontiers in Zoology, scientists reveal that this beetle has lost photoreceptors that are sensitive to blue wavelengths.

The red flour beetle (Tribolium castaneum) is a common pest that attacks milled grain products such as flour and cereals. It is a cryptozoic insect, meaning that it lives in the dark. Markus Friedrich from Wayne State University in Detroit, along with colleagues from St Louis and Cincinnati, performed genetic analyses to probe the evolution of the species' vision.

The opsin gene family is central to vision. The authors found that the beetle's compound eye retina lacked the blue-opsin encoding photoreceptors. Their work also identified the red flour beetle as the first example of an insect species that switches on two opsin genes across the entire retina. This co-expression of genes violates the 'one receptor rule' of sensory cells.

The research suggests that the beetle may have gained an evolutionary advantage through this adaptation. Dr Friedrich states that the work "raises the possibility that opsin co-expression is of advantage under conditions where brightness sensitivity is critical."

The study points the way to broader studies of the development and biology of this pest species. It also suggests that the red flour beetle may be a promising subject for further investigation of cryptozoic animals' evolution.
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Notes to Editors

1 Genomic and gene regulatory signatures of cryptozoic adaptation: loss of blue sensitive photoreceptors through expansion of long wavelength-opsin expression in the red flour beetle Tribolium castaneum
Magdalena Jackowska, Riyue Bao, Zhenyi Liu, Elizabeth C. McDonald, Tiffany A. Cook, and Markus Friedrich
Frontiers in Zoology (in press)

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Frontiers in Zoology is the first Open Access journal focussing on zoology as a whole. It aims to represent and re-unite the various disciplines that look at animal life from different perspectives and at providing the basis for a comprehensive understanding of zoological phenomena on all levels of analysis. Frontiers in Zoology provides a unique opportunity to publish high quality research and reviews on zoological issues that will be internationally accessible to any reader at no cost. The journal was initiated and is supported by the Deutsche Zoologische Gesellschaft, one of the largest national zoological societies with more than a century-long tradition in promoting high-level zoological research.

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