A better understanding of the voracious desert locust's sense of taste could lead to ways of reducing crop damage by insect pests, according Philip Newland of Cambridge University.
His research is aimed at finding out how the locust detects tastes and how its nervous system processes this information to produce coordinated activity such as feeding or moving away from a noxious taste. In many insects, taste cues also play a critical role in finding a mate, selecting a site for egg laying, taking part in swarms and avoiding danger.
The basic design features of the nervous system of insects show many similarities. So finding out how tastes are processed in the locust's nervous system could provide an understanding of how other insects choose food.
In the case of insect pests this might eventually suggest pesticide strategies for reducing crop damage. Insects have taste receptors on many parts of their bodies including their legs and mouths.
Many of the most damaging pests are becoming resistant to fast-acting insecticides, that are absorbed by their cuticles. One possible solution might be the greater use of slower acting agents that are ingested. "In this case it would be important to optimise the tastiness of the pesticide", said Dr Newland. He hopes his work, which is backed by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, will result in the discovery of how locusts translate chemical signals into a code that is deciphered and analysed by their nervous system.
This will involve identifying which parts of the locust's nervous system are involved. All animal nervous systems operate by messages being passed between individual nerve cells along complex pathways and networks. "The research will explore, for example, whether cells that respond to sweet tastes send their messages along different sets of nerve cells from those that detect salty flavours."
The research could also aid scientists' understanding of how the human taste system works. Many of the basic design features of the insect nervous system are very similar to those of humans. "Information about how an insect detects and responds to taste can provide insights into how human beings make sense of different tastes. "