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First Beetle to Have Its Genome Sequenced
By Steve Berberich

The red flour beetle and the fruit fly.

Around the house and garden, the red flour beetle is known as a little pantry pest. But among scientists, at least, the little pest’s status is about to change.

Soon, the quarter-inch-long critter will be the first beetle to have its genome sequenced. Scientists undertook the project because the beetle could be a “model” species for investigating human genetics, much like the mouse or the fruit fly.

The red flour beetle could rival the fruit fly and perhaps even take the place of the fly in certain types of research, says entomologist Richard Beeman of the U.S. Agricultural Research Service, who is working on the genome project. He became interested in the beetle’s genome in 1979, while studying genes for resisting pesticides. “I discovered that genetic mapping of resistance genes was so easy, I said, ‘Holy cow, how come people are not using this as a model?’ So I started developing a bunch of tools and now we have a genome project.”

For the beetle the honor of having its genome sequenced may be overdue. Beetles, the largest group of animals, represent one fifth of all known living organisms. Many are a menace to the food supply.

Scientists are hopeful that details of the genome will lead to advances in many areas, such as pharmaceuticals. Beetles naturally produce antibiotics, and the genome may reveal clues that could lead researchers to develop new antibiotics and other drugs. The beetle also secretes “enzyme inhibitors” that are involved in anti-inflammatory responses. This information could help in developing anti-inflammatory drugs.

For agricultural researchers, the genome may reveal genes involved in the beetle’s resistance to many classes of insecticides. Red flour beetles infest stored grains and flour, cereals, meal, crackers, beans, spices, pasta, dried flowers, and dried museum specimens. There is no single effective way to control the insect.

The genome could also reveal genes for molting and the protective hard shells in the red flour beetle and its cousins including major pests such as the Japanese beetle, cotton boll weevil, Colorado potato beetle, Mexican bean beetle, rice weevil, and corn rootworm. If these genes could be disrupted, beetle control might improve dramatically.

The U.S. National Human Genome Research Institute is funding the beetle genome project, which was estimated last year to cost $3 million to $6 million. The sequencing, underway at the Baylor University College of Medicine in Waco, Texas, should be finished in early 2004.

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