The days of the mountain pine beetle gnawing, unchecked, through the forests of B.C. and north-central Alberta could be numbered, thanks to a microscopic breakthrough.
Scientists at the University of British Columbia and the Michael Smith Genome Sciences Centre have decoded the genome of the voracious pest, permitting the first crystal clear look at how the little beetle wreaks such tremendous havoc.
"We know a lot about what the beetles do," says Christopher Keeling, a research associate at the Michael Smith Laboratories.
"But without the genome, we don’t know exactly how they do it … Sequencing the mountain pine beetle genome provides new information that can be used to help manage the epidemic in the future."
A study published in the journal Genome Biology shows the genome, the genetic coding that makes the beetle unique, reveals extreme variations among individuals of the species, more than four times as many differences as those found among humans.
"As the beetles’ range expands and as they head into jack pine forests where the defensive compounds may be different, this variation could allow them to be more successful in new environments," Keeling said.
Researchers from the University of Northern B.C. and the University of Alberta say the bug also has genes that allow it to defeat a tree's defence compounds and others that degrade plant cell walls, allowing it to suck up nutrients from the tree.
"It might be used to digest woody tissue and/or the microorganisms that grow in the beetle’s tunnels underneath the bark of the tree," Keeling said. "Gene transfers sometimes make organisms more successful in their environments."
The pine beetle is only the second beetle ever sequenced.