Sunday, May 26, 2013

Cockroach vs. human arms race

Blatella germanica (German cockroach)
German cockroach (via Wikimedia Commons)

The cockroach is a creature that universally elicits feelings of disgust, but anyone who has tried to catch or kill them would also concede a grudging admiration for their toughness. They thrive on the refuse of our human civilization, and it has been said that if the human race somehow managed to wipe itself out through nuclear war, it would be cockroaches that flourish in the ruins.

Much human ingenuity has also gone into designing new and improved ways to kill cockroaches. Sugar laced with poison is commonly used to bait and exterminate these pests. The large-scale deployment of such traps, however, also constitutes a huge inadvertent experiment on the effectiveness of natural selection. Some populations of the German cockroach, Blatella germanica, have become immune to such traps because they are no longer attracted by the glucose sugar used as bait.

Recent research by a team from North Carolina State University (article abstract) has uncovered the physiological basis for this glucose aversion. The sense of taste is mediated by gustatory sensory neurons (GRNs); different substances activate different neurons and trigger different behavioral responses. In normal, wild-type cockroaches, glucose stimulates sugar-GRNs. The researchers found that this is also the case in the glucose-averse cockroaches, but that glucose also additionally stimulates bitter-GRNs, which are usually simulated by substances such as caffeine to which cockroaches are averse. The activation of bitter-GRNs suppresses the usual response of sugar-GRNs and causes the glucose-averse behavior.

This is a nice and neat story that illustrates how quickly natural selection can act, especially considering how numerous the cockroaches must actually be. Whereas evolutionary arms races between most organisms are limited by the rate at which natural selection can act, our human battles against the organisms that we consider pests and weeds are accelerated greatly by the pace of technological change and innovation. This episode shows, however, that natural selection can sometimes keep up and catch us when we are not wary.

No comments: