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Photo: Two researchers review genomic map. Link to photo information
Molecular biologist Marce Lorenzen (left) and entomologist Richard Beeman review the recently developed genomic map of the red flour beetle. Click the image for more information about it.

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Agricultural Pest's Genome is Sequenced

By Sharon Durham
March 24, 2008

Scientists have completed sequencing the entire genetic blueprint of a key agricultural pest: the red flour beetle. This accomplishment is a "first" for any beetle. Tribolium castaneum thus joins the ranks of other fully sequenced “model organisms” such as the fruit fly. The work is reported in the March 27 issue of the journal Nature.

Accomplishment of this feat was largely due to the efforts of Agricultural Research Service (ARS) entomologist Richard W. Beeman, Kansas State University collaborators Susan Brown and Rob Denell, and Stephen Richards and Richard Gibbs of the Baylor College of MedicineHuman Genome Sequencing Center in Houston, Texas. Beeman is based at the ARS Grain Marketing and Production Research Center in Manhattan, Kan. ARS is the U.S. Department of Agriculture's chief scientific research agency.

The red flour beetle is a significant pest of stored grain and grain products worldwide, and the most important insect pest in flour mills. It's a voracious feeder that, together with its grain-ingesting cousins, causes millions of dollars of damage annually. The insect possesses several quirks that the completed sequence data may help explain.

For instance, unlike other insects, such as nectar-foraging bees and blood-hungry mosquitoes, the red flour beetle isn't very discriminating about what it eats. While feeding mostly on wheat flour, it can survive on a wide range of foods, including cornmeal, nuts, crackers, cake mix—even chocolate. T. castaneum can adapt not only to a variety of diets, but also to a range of environmental conditions. It has a very specialized kidney-like organ that allows it to survive extremely dry environments.

More than 100 scientists representing 14 countries participated in the discovery and analysis of genes encoded in the completed sequence. The group, officially called the Tribolium Genome Sequencing Consortium, began its work after completion and assembly of the raw sequence data. The project was funded by grants from the National Human Genome Research Institute, which is part of the National Institutes of Health, and USDA.

The sequenced genome may provide clues to help in thwarting this important agricultural pest. And gaining insight into T.castaneum's ability to establish resistance to many classes of insecticide could open new doors to insect pest management strategies in general.