The discovery of a protective protein in the skin of insects could help scientists develop a chemical-free insecticide. When insects are molting they secrete an enzyme that dissolves their old skin, and Sujata Chaudhari from Kansas State University discovered that a protein present in the new skin of insects called the Knickkopf protein protects the new skin from dissolving along with the old. Chaudhari and her colleagues believe that developing a mechanism to shut off the Knickkopf protein would keep crops bug free without toxic chemicals.

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The enzyme that dissolves the old skin is called chitinase. “Think of Knickkopf as a fire retardant, chitinase as a fire, and the insect’s cuticle as the wall of a house,” noted Subbaratnam Muthukrishnan. Muthukrishnan is an adviser to Chaudhari, a collaborator on the study and a professor of biochemistry at Kansas State University. “During molting, it’s like the house is on fire, but the fire is only burning things on the outside. Everything inside is safe because there’s a fire retardant wall.”

The group was studying the red flour beetle when they discovered the Knickkopf protein. Chaudhari believes that this enzyme and protein relationship is probably present in all insects that molt. They believe that now that they understand this relationship they’ll be able to develop interfering RNA’s to put on crops that would make insects vulnerable to disease and lower populations. Though we’re not huge fans of killing off whole hoards of insects — ecosystems are delicately balanced things — at least this method doesn’t pollute groundwater, soil and cause illness in people that live in the general vicinity of farms.

Via Science Daily