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Spider mite genome sequenced; could be key to battling the agricultural pest

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TORONTO - An international team of researchers may have found the key to controlling a pest responsible for $1 billion in agricultural losses annually.

Led by University of Western Ontario researcher Miodrag Grbic (Ger-Bich) the group has sequenced the genome of the spider mite.

The mite — Tetranychus urticae — feeds on more than 1,000 different plants, including 150 of agricultural importance such as maize, soy, strawberries, tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers.

The research team — which includes members from Spain, Belgium, France, Portugal, the United States, Chile, Germany and Switzerland — says insects and mites currently destroy 13 per cent of all potential crops.

The study, published in the journal Nature, says the team members hope their work will lead to the ability to breed plants resistant to spider mites.

It could also result in new tools for biotechnology-based pest controls, reduce spider mites' ability to reproduce, and put more pesticide-free food on Canadian tables.

The scientific team uncovered the genetic basis for mites' ability to feed on many different plants, discovering that the spider mite is able to multiply and evolve new genes to detoxify toxic plant molecules.

Most surprisingly, the researchers said, is that the mite "hijacks" detoxification genes from bacteria, fungi and plants to combat the plant defences before incorporating them into its own genome.

"We have discovered this creature's gene set and more importantly, we believe we have found its Achilles heel so that we can begin development of non-pesticide, alternative pest control measures," Grbic, a biology professor at the London, Ont., university said.

"This species is renowned for developing resistance to pesticides. Within two years of introduction, spider mites are able to overcome new pesticides," Grbic said.

Grbic's group, in collaboration with nano-physicists Jeff Hutter at Western and Marisela Velez at Universidad Autonoma de Madrid, also discovered a novel benefit: spider mite silk.

This naturally occurring nanomaterial of extreme lightness has potential uses as a reinforcement in composite materials – including for the automotive and aeronautic industries, the researchers said.

The project represent the first complete genome of chelicerates — the second-largest group of animals in the world behind insects — which include spiders, scorpions, horseshoe crabs, ticks and mites.

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