Yale Researcher Makes Groundbreaking Discovery of Taste Receptor Genes in Insects

A Yale research team has made a groundbreaking discovery that could make humans, livestock and crops a much less tasty meal for insects.

The first insect taste receptor genes, which encode the proteins that underlie the insects’ sense of taste, have been found by a team led by Professor John Carlson of the Department of Molecular Cell and Developmental Biology.

“This could have wide-ranging implications,” Carlson said. “Up to 40 percent of the world’s crop production is lost every year due to insects. Also, hundreds of millions of people are afflicted by insect-borne diseases. So there is tremendous interest in controlling insect pests.”

Carlson said the discovery, published in Science this week, could help keep troublesome insects in check because researchers can now develop compounds that are bitter to insects and then apply them to crops, livestock and humans.

The research was conducted using drosophila, or fruit flies, and a computer program. Carlson’s team initially used the program to detect the first insect odor receptors in a study published last year, and then to locate taste receptors. The program was designed by Junhyong Kim, an associate professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.

The program analyzed the DNA sequences of the fly genome, searching for proteins likely to cross membranes several times, as would be expected of taste receptor genes. Carlson’s team found a large family of genes encoding approximately 75 proteins. Of 19 genes tested, 18 were expressed in the fruit flies’ labellum, which is a gustatory organ of the insects’ proboscis.

Carlson said that in addition to protecting humans, livestock, and crops, the finding also could lead to additional information about how taste systems function. The taste organs of fruit flies are relatively simple and therefore good candidates for study.

Co-authors of the study were Coral Warr, a post doctoral fellow in Carlson’s laboratory, and Peter Clyne, who, at the time of the discovery, was a post doctoral fellow in the laboratory.

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