The Insect Genome Project Can Save Us From Disease

Now that we’ve sequenced human DNA, we move on to our six-legged friends, whose genes might yield important and lucrative discoveries in many fields.



The Human Genome Project was a $3.8 billion undertaking that has so far yielded over $800 billion in economic output. The 5,000 Insect Genome Project (i5k), an initiative that aims to sequence the genomes of 5,000 insects and arthropods over the next five years, could reap similar rewards–but for a fraction of the price.

The initiative’s launch group, which includes researchers from the USDA, the European Bioinformatics Institute and Kansas State University, believes that it can sequence all 5,000 genomes for $5 million (and handle bioinformatics and data mining for another $10 million). This is just a fraction of the million or so insect species in existence, of course, but DNA sequencing costs are dropping constantly–so a goal of 5,000 insects is just the start, according to American Entemologist. What might we look forward to in a world where insect genomes have been decoded?

  • Better pesticides. Researchers can use sequencing information, computational analysis, and bioinformatics to figure out what changes in the genome make insect species resistant to certain pesticides. By mining data for the genes involved with detoxifying chemicals that make their way inside insects, for example, researchers could figure out how to target them. Researchers could also figure out how insect immune systems change in response to the use of biopesticides. We can already hear Monsanto salivating.
  • Protection for more vulnerable species. The same data about those detoxifying genes could be used to protect honeybees (which don’t have as many detox genes to begin with) from being affected by pesticides–and that could help prevent our entire food system from crashing down.
  • Preventing the spread of insect-borne diseases. Plant, animal, and microbe genomes are already being sequenced. By adding insects to the mix, scientists can better understand the relationships between host, insect, and pathogen–and potentially stop disease transmission. “So if you think about mosquitoes, we currently have three genomes of mosquitoes that are vectors of malaria and other diseases. But there are other very similar, related mosquitoes that do not act as vectors, so we want to sequence non-vector species as well so we can determine what makes an arthropod a vector or not a vector,” explained Daniel Lawson, a coordinator at the European Bioinformatics Institute in an interview with American Entemologist.
  • Development of detection devices for biodefense. If scientists can replicate insects’ sharp sensory receptors, we could see all sorts of DARPA-like nanotech military spy cameras.

The i5k project hasn’t definitely decided on what insect genomes to sequence, so if you have any favorite bugs, submit them here.

[Image: Flickr use asnyder5]

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About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more