Researchers have decoded the genome of the mountain pine beetle.

Researchers have decoded the genome of the mountain pine beetle.

Beetle research expands

The genome of the mountain pine beetle – the insect that has devastated lodgepole pine forests – has been decoded

The genome of the mountain pine beetle – the insect that has devastated lodgepole pine forests – has been decoded by researchers at the University of B.C. and Canada’s Michael Smith Genome Sciences Centre.

This is a first for the mountain pine beetle and only the second beetle genome ever sequenced. The first was the red flour beetle, a pest of stored grains.

“We know a lot about what the beetles do,” said Christopher Keeling, a research associate in Professor Joerg Bohlmann’s lab at UBC’s Michael Smith Laboratories.

“But without the genome, we don’t know exactly how they do it. Sequencing the mountain pine beetle genome provides new information that can be used to help manage the epidemic in the future.”

The genome revealed large variation among individuals of the species – about four times greater than the variation among humans.

“As the beetles’ range expands and as they head into jackpine forests where the defensive compounds may be different, this variation could allow them to be more successful in new environments,” said Keeling.

Researchers isolated genes that help detoxify defence compounds found under the bark of the tree – where the beetles live. They also found genes that degrade plant cell walls, which allow the beetles to get nutrients from the tree.

Keeling, Bohlmann and their colleagues also uncovered a bacterial gene that has jumped into the mountain pine beetle genome. This gene codes for an enzyme that digests sugars.

“It might be used to digest woody tissue and/or the micro-organisms that grow in the beetle’s tunnels underneath the bark of the tree,” said Keeling.

“Gene transfers sometimes make organisms more successful in their environments.”

The study involved researchers from the University of Northern B.C. and the University of Alberta.