UofM Biology Professor Publishes Article on Genomic Basis of Insect Biodiversity in National Academy of Sciences Journal

November 21, 2019 - Dr. Duane McKenna, William Hill Professor of Biological Sciences at the University of Memphis, has authored a paper published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS). His article “The Evolution and Genomic Basis of Beetle Diversity” details how ancient horizontal transfers of microbial genes to beetle genomes set the stage for beetle diversification.

Beetles, with more than 400,000 species, arguably comprise the most diverse group of animals on Earth. Most beetle species are herbivores and feed on plants. Consequently, some species are pests of agriculture or forestry, or play important roles as pollinators or decomposers. In this study, funded in part by the U.S. National Science Foundation, McKenna and his colleagues used genomic data of an unprecedented scale to reconstruct the family tree of beetles and trace the evolution of beetle genes enabling herbivory.

Their analyses resolved the beetle family tree and dated the origin of beetles to more than 300 million years ago, before the first dinosaurs. Moreover, they showed that beetle genes encoding plant cell wall-degrading enzymes were obtained from bacteria and fungi via ancient horizontal gene transfers and were key to the diversification of herbivorous beetles. These genes enabled efficient digestion of plant tissues, facilitating uniquely specialized plant-feeding habits such as wood boring and leaf mining. Their findings underscore the intimacy and complexity of the relationships between insects, plants and microorganisms, and provide a compelling answer to the question of why there are so many beetle species. Their work will aid researchers in combating invasive beetle species, protecting beetles that perform important ecosystem services and understanding how beetles digest wood and other plant tissues.

This paper is the result of a collaboration between the McKenna Lab and researchers from Australia, Austria, China, Germany, Russia and the U.S. (USDA and Oregon State University), working at the leading edge of large-scale genomic data generation, analysis and integration. University of Memphis co-authors included two postdocs, a graduate student and an undergraduate student in McKenna’s lab. McKenna is director of the UofM Center for Biodiversity Research and co-director of the Agriculture and Food Technologies Research Cluster at the UofM FedEx Institute of Technology.

Research Contact:

Duane McKenna | 617.285.2822 | dmckenna@memphis.edu

Media Contact:

Mary Ann Dawson | 901.678.1592 | mdawson@memphis.edu