Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Termite Mad Science

As I just got done noting in the prediction book review, the human genome was cracked in 2003. I bring this up because there is some rather intriguing news out of Purdue's entomology department, where due to research headed by Michael Scharf, the termite genome has also been cracked.

Specifically, it's the Nevada dampwood termite. That's not the one famous for eating all the wood in your house; you'd be thinking of the eastern subterranean termite. But it's a close enough relative that it works for Purdue's purposes. Cracking their genome will provide massive, massive amounts of information into their behavioral patterns, just like cracking the human genome has for humans. And everyone's very excited about that. But that isn't the implication that's making the headlines.

What's making the headlines regards pest control. Termites are generally handled by copious quantities of pesticides spread over a large area, large because you don't know how widespread they are and better safe than sorry. By cracking the genome, the hope is that a part of the termite's genetic code can be located that tells scientists of a less toxic way to kill them, or at least keep them from eating the house. In fact, Scharf sees a number of options, but he appears partial to mind control; that is, instead of doing anything in particular to make the termites physically incapable of their task, you would instead mess with the proteins in their brains in order to make them fight each other so that the colony devolves into internal warfare... which, Scharf notes, would be rather easy, as things are naturally somewhat tense in a termite colony and you wouldn't have to introduce very many termite hate zombies to get the whole colony going.

Termites and humans are not the only genomes to be cracked, for the record. Not even close. Even before the human genome, a species of worm was the first complex organism cracked, back in 1998. Just in the first couple hundred Google results, you've got bonobos, chimpanzees, orangutans, gorillas, corn, cows, tsetse flies, blood flukes, the wooly mammoth, the bubonic plague, malaria, cholera, a couple species of diploid cotton, an ancient species of horse, purple sea urchins, white spruce trees, and clearly this list could go on for quite a while. Even Bangladesh, a nation not exactly known for its scientific achievements, has gotten into the act by cracking the genome of the buffalo back in January. What's clear here is that scientists know how to map a genome. It's just a matter of what species they want and how much code they have to crack.

And whether they want to stock up on Tesla coils and fright wigs and practice laughing maniacally, but enough about Scharf.

No comments: