Wily Mutant Cockroaches Learn to Avoid Sugar to Outsmart Traps

Mutant Cockroaches Learn to Avoid Sugar to Outsmart Traps

Roaches that have been hard to exterminate may be a variety that have decided sugar doesn’t taste quite so sweet as bait anymore, researchers found.

Most cockroach baits cover poison in a layer of glucose, a sugar. Some mutant German roaches, the most common species of pest found in houses, apartments, restaurants and hotels, now taste glucose as bitter, researchers said in a study released in the journal Science. This change in palate enables them to avoid traps.

The scientists collected 19 roach populations, mostly from the U.S. and Puerto Rico, to look at how common the glucose-spurning had become. They found seven populations that had the taste trait, said Coby Schal, a study author and a professor of entomology at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. He expects the numbers would have been higher had his group asked exterminators to send sample roaches from infestations that had been difficult to control by ordinary means.“It’s very important, in terms of effective pest control,” Schal said in a telephone interview. “It’s not trivial. It’s out there.”

Glucose is a popular ingredient in poisonous baits, the researchers wrote in the study released yesterday. In normal German cockroaches, the glucose creates responses in the sugar neurons. In the mutant roaches, the glucose triggers the bitter taste bud receptors, prompting the animals to avoid the sugar.

The mutant roaches didn’t stay away from all sugars. They will still eat fructose. And they paid a price for their modified diet: they grew more slowly than glucose-chomping brethren.

More Expensive

Using fructose as a bait has drawbacks. Regular high-fructose corn syrup is 40 to 50 percent glucose, Schal said. Refined high-fructose corn syrup, which is 90 percent fructose, is more expensive, he said.

Other foods cockroaches like, such as tuna fish, can be substituted for glucose as a bait to combat the mutant taste populations. The trade off is the smell of tuna in the house, Schal said.

“It’s always a compromise in formulating baits,” he said.

Peanut butter has served as a good short-term bait solution, as roaches are attracted to the food and it doesn’t require glucose to be effective, he said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Elizabeth Lopatto in San Francisco at elopatto@bloomberg.net

May 23, 2013

Wily Cockroaches Find Another Survival Trick: Laying Off the Sweets

By JAMES GORMAN

Everyone knows that cockroaches are the ultimate survivors, with enough evolutionary tricks up their carapaces to have thrived for 350 million years and to have completely adapted to the human species.

But the nature of the adaptation that researchers in North Carolina described on Thursday in the journal Science is impressive even for such an ancient, ineradicable lineage, experts say. Some populations of cockroaches evolved a simple, highly effective defense against sweet-tasting poison baits: They switched their internal chemistry around so that glucose, a form of sugar that is a sweet come-hither to countless forms of life, tastes bitter.

The way the roach’s senses changed, experts say, is an elegant example of quick evolutionary change in behavior, and offers the multibillion-dollar pest control industry valuable insights into enemy secrets, perhaps even revealing some clues for the fight against malaria-carrying mosquitoes, which are far more dangerous to human health than roaches.

“This is a fantastic discovery,” said Walter S. Leal, the head of the entomology department in the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences at the University of California, Davis. (Dr. Leal was not part of the research.)

“Sometimes,” he said, “the science is beautiful but you don’t know whether there is going to be an application five years from now, 10 years from now or 100 years.” But in this case, he said, the impact is both fundamental and practical.

Ayako Wada-Katsumata, Jules Silverman and Coby Schal, all at North Carolina State University, who wrote the report in Science, set out to explain a well-known phenomenon: Some populations of German cockroaches (the ones that apartment dwellers see scurrying around in the kitchen at night) avoid poison bait that is laced with glucose, which is supposed to attract them.

This behavior, discovered by Dr. Silverman, “first appeared in the early ’90s,” said Jim Fredericks, chief entomologist at the National Pest Management Association, shortly after exterminators — who now prefer to be called pest management professionals — started using poison baits instead of spraying as the main method of battling roaches. To get around the problem, the industry developed new baits, but the change in roach behavior was a puzzle.

Grzegorz Buczkowski, an entomologist at Purdue University who was not involved in the research, said the industry was always developing new poisons, because roaches and other pests become resistant to their effects, just as bacteria become resistant to antibiotics.

“We lose baits all the time,” he said.

But in this case, the problem was not a poison that had become ineffective. The cockroaches just seemed to avoid any bait that had glucose.

Dr. Silverman showed that this behavior was inherited, not something an individual roach learned during its brief life. And a few years ago the North Carolina researchers decided to investigate what caused the change.

Instead of taste buds, roaches have taste hairs on many parts of their bodies. The three North Carolina researchers concentrated on those around the mouth area and on two types of nerve cells that sense tastes and respond by firing electrical signals to the brain. One responds only to sugars and other sweet substances; the other responds only to bitter substances. Whenever a molecule of something sweet attaches to a sweet detector, it fires electrical impulses and the roach brain senses sweetness, which makes it want to eat whatever it is tasting. Whenever a molecule of something bitter attaches to the bitter detector, that cell fires and the brain senses bitterness, which makes the roach want to avoid that substance.

But somehow the roaches had changed so that the glucose made the bitter detector fire.

“Basically,” said Dr. Buczkowski, “when cockroaches taste glucose, they’re repelled by it because it tastes bitter to them.”

Dr. Schal said the next step was to figure out the details of the genetic mutation that had occurred. Perhaps a mutation changed the molecules that detect bitter substances so that they would be sensitive to glucose, too. Or a different sort of mutation could have caused the dedicated bitter neurons to have lots of standard glucose detectors, which did not exist on those neurons before — a shift that also would have made the insects register sweet glucose as bitter.

The research may be relevant far beyond roach control, perhaps helping to explain the behavior of mosquitoes that spread malaria, Dr. Schal said.

“The mosquito changed its behavior,” he said, “and no longer rests on walls that are treated with insecticide. Instead it tends to rest on the ceiling, or it tends to rest on the outside walls that are not treated with insecticide.

“We still don’t understand the cellular, the neural mechanism responsible for this change in behavior of the mosquito,” he said, so the approach that yielded results with the cockroach could offer useful insights.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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