Sex pheromones are substances secreted by animals that elicit powerful attractant effects and mating stimuli on individuals of the same species. The sex pheromones of Coccoidea (scale insects and mealybugs) are emitted by virgin females to attract mates. Each Coccoidean species appears to have evolved a characteristic biosynthetic pathway that generates a specialised terpenoid sex-pheromone. Closely related species often produce pheromones with very different structures suggesting that positive selection has forced the evolution of signals that can be clearly discriminated from those of closely related taxa. However, as very little is known about the genetic basis of Coccoidea pheromones, how this chemical diversity evolved is largely unknown.
This project will explore fundamental questions about the evolution of chemical diversity in Coccoidea. In addition, it will provide the potential for new methods of sustainable pest management. Many species of Coccoidea are aggressive pests of agriculture and horticulture and better control methods are highly desirable. Sex-pheromones are successfully used for controlling a number of insect species and provide a sustainable alternative to conventional pesticides, the use of which are progressively being restricted due to concerns about their non-specificity and negative impacts on biodiversity. The complex structures of Coccoiden sex pheromones mean chemical synthesis is extremely difficult and economically unviable. Our lab is part of a European consortium involved in uncovering the genetic basis of insect sex pheromones with the aim of enabling heterologous bioproduction for sustainable pest management (http://susphire.info/).
This project will use diverse techniques and technologies including bioinformatics, molecular biology, synthetic biology and biochemistry. Training will be provided in all areas.