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Three-Eyed 'Cyclops' Beetle Offer New Insights on Genetics

Aug 24, 2016 04:59 AM EDT
The National Trust Conduct Their Oil Beetle Survey
Beetles with three eyes are more than just curiosities. They also hold the key to understanding genetics even further, giving scientists valuable insight on new traits evolving through the recruitment of existing genes.
(Photo : Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

Beetles with three eyes are more than just curiousities. They also hold the key to understanding genetics even further, giving scientists valuable insight on genetic development in a recent study.

Beetles hatch from larvae before developing into full-grown adults. According to a press release in Eurekalert, a team of scientists were able to see how new traits in the insect evolved through certain genes.

The researchers switched off the orthodenticle genes in the dung beetle or horned beetle of the genus Onthophagus. After shutting off the genes, the insect saw some incredible evolutions in its head structure such as the loss or shrinkage of its horns and the appearance of compound eyes at the center of its head, giving the beetle its nickname "Cyclops".

When the same changes were applied to the non-horned flour beetles, it did not yield the same effects.

"We were amazed that shutting down a gene could not only turn off development of horns and major regions of the head, but also turn on the development of very complex structures such as compound eyes in a new location," Eduardo Zattara, a postdoctoral researcher in the IU Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences' Department of Biology, said. "The fact that this doesn't happen in Tribolium is equally significant, as it suggests that orthodenticle genes have acquired a new function: to direct head and horn formation only in the highly modified head of horned beetles."

The study was led Zattara and published alongside another study led by Hannah Busey that basically mapped the regions of the larval heads that made every part of the corresponding adult head.

Zattara's team used Busey's data to choose the genes necessary for embryos to build larval heads, then switched them off to determine their roles in building the adult heads.

"These studies provide a solution to an important 'chicken-and-egg problem' of modern evolutionary developmental biology," Zattara explained. "For a gene to carry out a new function, it needs to find a way to be activated at the right time and location. But it is hard to come up with a good reason why a gene would become active in a new context without already carrying out some important function."

The study on beetles remain endlessly compelling. However, another type is setting up to terrorize some states in the east. A report from Indy Star revealed that the Asian longhorned beetle has recently destroyed over 20,000 trees in New York as well as a significant chunk of trees in Chicago and Cincinnati.

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