i5K: Sequencing Insect DNA for Human Health

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Remember that high school biology project where you pinned and identified insects for class? Now scientists are buzzing to take that discovery lesson one bug further — in a big way.

In the quest to better understand insect biology, and in doing so improve our quality of life, a research group from the United States and United Kingdom has just launched the 5,000 Insect Genome Project, i5K.

Through gene sequencing and analysis, the researchers aim to find novel, more effective ways to manage insects for the prevention of human diseases, protection of the food supply, and economic safeguards for farming. Their goal: sequence 5,000 select insects and related arthropods within five years.

The time is right to launch i5K, says Gene E. Robinson, i5K researcher and professor of entomology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Thanks to new developments in sequencing technology, within a few years costs will significantly reduce for gene sequencing of all organisms.

“…Many insect genomes — not all, but many — are about one-tenth the size of a human genome, so when we get down to the thousand-dollar human genome, we’re talking about a hundred-dollar insect genome. It’s time to mobilize!” said Robinson in a recent interview with the Entomological Society of America.

The global initiative holds promise to speed the advancement of knowledge of entomology today, and catalyze insect studies in the future through the availability of an insect genome database.

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For example, the researchers explain that new data could enable us to strengthen the survival of certain useful, but delicate species of insects such as honeybees, or inhibit other species that damage our food or health.

“…we could mine data for cytochrome p450 detox genes. Those genes are involved with detoxifying chemicals that are inside insects, so if we know about those genes from one insect to another, we can use that information to actually kill [targeted] insects,” said Kevin J. Hackett, a national program leader at the USDA Agricultural Research Service, and i5K researcher.

Hackett sees many tangible results possible for the project including; discovering a cure for malaria, improvements in sterile insect technology, or application of information about insect sensory receptors for use with nanotechnology for biodefense, and other areas.

He also highlights the importance of understanding interconnected relationships in nature. “Since plants, animals, and microbes are already being sequenced, if you add insects to that, then you’ve got…host, insect, and pathogen — and if you can understand those relationships, you can interrupt transmission of plant or animal pathogens.”

The i5K group has created a wiki page describing their research plan and goals, which includes a message calling for participation from scientists worldwide across the scientific disciplines of entomology, genetics, bioinformatics and others.

According to the wiki, other experts can join the work by creating their own wiki pages for insect genomes they feel are important to sequence, and discuss which genomes have already been sequenced.