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Red flour beetle on a cereal flake. Link to photo information
The eyes on this red flour beetle are white or clear—not the typical black color—because of a defective pigment gene. Other defective genes are being discovered by ARS scientists and exploited as possible biopesticide targets. Click the image for more information about it.

Probing the Genes of an Eccentric Beetle Pest

By Erin Peabody
November 2, 2005

Before you take a swat at that next buggy kitchen invader, think again. It could be the red flour beetle, one of science's most distinguished organisms.

Thanks largely to the efforts of Agricultural Research Service (ARS) entomologist Richard Beeman, this insect--best known for sneaking flour from kitchen cupboards--became the first beetle and agricultural pest to have its genome sequenced. The final data from the project, all of the beetle's deconstructed DNA, was recently released.

For 26 years, Beeman, who works at the ARS Grain Marketing and Production Center in Manhattan, Kan., has been studying the voracious pest which, together with its grain-infesting cousins, causes billions of dollars of damage annually to stored grains.

The insect also possesses several odd quirks that the just-completed sequencing data should help illuminate. For instance, unlike other insects, such as nectar-foraging bees and blood-hungry mosquitoes, the red flour beetle isn't at all choosy about what it eats.

While feeding mostly on wheat flour, it can survive on a wide range of foodstuffs, including cornmeal, nuts, crackers, cake mix--even chocolate.

The genes underlying the beetle's ability to eat and digest just about anything intrigue Beeman. And he's hoping to pinpoint which of its roughly 15,000 genes allow the insect to live out its entire year-long life without ever needing a drop of water.

The insect also has two pairs of peculiar "stink" glands that continuously churn out a fragrant, oily substance that may help protect it from pathogens. According to Beeman, when rearing hundreds of these beetles in his lab, the mysterious substance eventually oxidized, causing a purplish discoloration to form throughout the insect's lab environment.

Beeman's genetic probing should not only increase the basic understanding of the complex inner workings of insects, but also lead to better and more eco-friendly pest control tactics.

Read more about the research in the November 2005 issue of Agricultural Research magazine.

ARS is the U.S. Department of Agriculture's chief in-house scientific research agency.