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Otago researchers help map aphid genome

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Tuesday, 23 February 2010 3:02pm

AphidUniversity of Otago researchers are part of an international group that has just published the complete genome of the pea aphid, an achievement which may lead to new weapons in the fight against this major agricultural pest.

A genome contains all the hereditary information of an organism and includes its genes and the non-coding sequences of the DNA. The publication of the aphid genome is the culmination of a six-year project involving over 200 researchers from 15 countries.

Genetics Otago Associate Professor Peter Dearden led the University’s contribution to the project, the results of which are published today in the US journal PLoS Biology.

Dr Dearden says aphids are leading agricultural pests and a biosecurity risk to New Zealand, with the vast majority of aphids here being introduced species that have significant economic impacts. They also often carry plant viruses that also can affect crops.

“This genome sequence will improve the biological understanding of these remarkable animals. For instance, this research will contribute towards greatly
reducing the economic impact these insects currently have on our agricultural economy, by enabling us to develop tailormade insecticides. At the very least, it may help us keep them off our roses!” he says.

Biologically, aphids are very interesting insects, he added.

“They are capable of both sexual and asexual reproduction and, when reproducing asexually, a female aphid contains within its body its children which then contain its grandchildren - so-called telescoping generations.”

Aphids also contain bacteria within their bodies, without which the Aphids would die.

The genome sequence contains a number of bacterial genes which means that these genes have moved from the bacteria to the aphid, he says.

“While it has a smaller genome than humans, the aphid genome is still 464 million base-pairs long, which helps explain why unlocking the genetic secrets of this tiny creature still required a giant international scientific effort.”

Dr Dearden’s group, which includes colleagues Drs Elizabeth Duncan, Megan Wilson and James Smith, contributed to annotating genes, which involved determining which genes are present in the genome and what they look like.

The group particularly focused on genes involved in the embryonic development of aphids.

In 2006, through their work on the honeybee genome, Dr Dearden, Dr Wilson and Otago Zoology researchers were the first New Zealand scientists to contribute to a published animal genome.

The group’s work on the pea aphid genome has been supported through grants from The University of Otago and the National Research Centre for Growth and
Development.

The PloS Biology article can be viewed at:

http://www.plosbiology.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pbio.1000313

For more information, contact

Associate Professor Peter Dearden
Director of Genetics Otago
Department of Biochemistry
University of Otago
Tel 64 3 479 7832
Email peter.dearden@otago.ac.nz