BOZEMAN, Mont. A female moth sitting on a goal post could attract a male moth on the other end of a football field. And even if she switched her scent over time, the male could still find her because of a mutation to a single gene in his antenna.
A team of researchers led by Montana State University entomologist Kevin Wanner identified that gene after seeing how it adapted to even the slightest change in the chemicals female moths emit to attract males. The scientists explained their findings in the Aug. 13 online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).
Understanding the genetics behind moth communication could lead to natural ways to control pests, said Wanner, who has dual assignments in the MSU Department of Plant Sciences and Plant Pathology and MSU Extension. Scientists could someday design new scents that would make it impossible for male moths to find females of the same species. The European corn borer alone is one of the most damaging insect pests of corn throughout the United States and Canada. The losses it causes and the cost to control it is estimated at more than $1 billion each year.
In the meantime, the discovery that involved hundreds of moths, an MSU-University of Montana collaboration, and a vital piece of equipment adds to the basic understanding of insect genetics, Wanner said. One area of interest focuses on the genetic barriers that keep moths from mating outside their own species.
Scientists have studied communication between male and female moths and butterflies for more than a century. They found the first sex pheromones in moths 50 years ago. But they still know little about the molecular mechanics that make communication so specific to a species, Wanner said. In some cases, different moth species are so much alike that scientists can only tell them apart by their different pheromones.
Pheromones are the blends of chemical odors that females emit
|Contact: Evelyn Boswell|
Montana State University