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DNA of Pest-Killing Wasps Could Unlock Other Secrets

The science community is abuzz over the news that the entire genetic makeup of a highly valuable wasp has been determined via DNA sequencing.

Nasonia is the name given to three different species of pinhead-sized, parasitic wasps that act as a kind of natural pesticide: They sting -- and lay their eggs inside of -- only certain, crop-destroying pests, greatly reducing the need for artificial chemical treatments.

Such biological pest control has been practiced for thousands of years (the ancient Chinese used beneficial ants to protect their citrus trees), but modern science could take the practice to a new level. By understanding exactly which genes tell the Nasonia to attack the pests they do, scientists hope to heighten the wasps' pest-killing proficiency, breed them in mass, and synthesize their venom. Someday their DNA could even be used to develop drugs for combating human diseases.

Nasonia wasps are interesting to scientists on another level: Their species have been around for only several hundred thousand years, making them one of Earth's younger insect groups. During that time, Nasonia picked up genes from pox viruses and other bacteria. One of the next projects for researchers is to find out what purpose these additional genes serve for the wasp.

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