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CSREES Grant to Identify Genetic Functions in Mountain Pine Beetle


News from
University of Nevada-Reno

By Bob Conrad, University of Nevada-Reno Staff
March 13, 2006

Small in stature--but huge on impact--the mountain pine beetle is taking a significant bite out of North American forests.

“This beetle is the single most significant insect pest of pine forests in western North America,” according to Claus Tittiger, associate professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of Nevada, Reno. “There have been major outbreaks in British Columbia and Alaska, particularly in the last few years, causing significant timber losses.”

The beetle will attack healthy, full-grown trees, and is responsible for most of the on-going bark beetle damage in Lake Tahoe's forests. Previous beetle outbreaks were from different beetle species, but most of what is happening at Tahoe now is due to the mountain pine beetle, Tittiger said.

Tittiger and his Nevada colleagues hope to create the foundation for what they hope will ultimately be a counter attack against the pest. Their approach is at the molecular level. The Nevada researchers are looking to find the functions of the beetle's genes, which number up to 15,000.

“We want to catalog as many genes as possible, an experiment that will allow us to look at which genes the beetle uses for communication and how the beetle deals with host trees,” Tittiger said. “The long term idea is to find the genes unique to these particular beetles and hopefully shut them down.”

Tittiger's research is funded by a new $409,000 grant from the USDA's National Research Initiative of the Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service.

He said that the Nevada research team will use the funds to develop a public database--called the “BarkBeetleBase”--to warehouse bark beetles' molecular biology data.

Previous bark beetle research in Nevada has been critical to understanding pheromone production in the less-aggressive pine engraver beetle, which is also a pest to Tahoe forests.

“This is the first time anyone has tried this particular approach on these beetles,” Tittiger said. “The old fashioned way in molecular biology is to look at one gene. With functional genomics, we're looking at as many genes as we can.”