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Do you remember the tree urchin?

February 15, 2019

Back in 2012 I was amazed by the tree urchins, i.e. the fantastic red galls on Dipterocarpus tuberculatus. As it turned out, the insect responsible for this gall is indeed the aphid-related Beesonia dipterocarpi (Coccoidea) as discussed back in 2012.

A few months ago I was contacted by a research team who wanted the Dokmai Dogma gall picture for a publication. Being old and aware that my private library and photographs probably will end up in a waste bin, such a request was of course granted.

On Tuesday the article by Schultz, Edger, Body and Appel was published in Nature/Scientific Reports and contained their splendid research on the molecular biology of gall formation. In conclusion, the researchers showed that insects hijack the floral genes of the leaf cells to make a fruitlike structure which protects the insects rather than seeds.

Most cells in any multicellular organism contain the entire genome/DNA to encode the entire organism, i.e the cells of your toe have the blue prints to make your liver and brain. Since the leaf cells have the genes to make any plant structure including flowers and fruits, the insects unlock these dormant genes and start making structures resembling fruits or pistils.

How they unlock the dormant genes is still an enigma. One hypothesis is that their saliva contain plant hormones, but that would imply suitable receptors on the leaf cells’ outside membranes which seems unlikely, so it could be even more intricate, i.e. the insects manipulate the molecular locks inside the plant cell.

Is this research for nerds only? If we figure out how the insects unlock dormant genes in specialised plant cells, we might learn the trick and unlock dormant genes in specialised human cells, with huge medicinal applications such as making a new kidney or liver from your own white blood cells!

Eric Danell

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