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Forget Kafka: U research unlocks secrets about metamorphosis

One of the many fascinating things about insects is the process of metamorphosis.

One of the many fascinating things about insects is the process of metamorphosis. You know, the caterpillar-butterfly thing.

Scientists have known for 100 years that a hormone produced by the brain – a neuropeptide known as PTTH — controls metamorphosis. But they didn’t know how it worked to pull off such amazing transformations.

Now a team of University of Minnesota researchers has unlocked the secret to a signaling pathway that controls the metamorphosis of juvenile insects into adults. The research team worked with fruit flies and silk moths. But all insects that undergo complete metamorphosis appear to use this signaling system.

Did anyone besides me wish as a child that it was possible for humans to undergo off metamorphosis? Well, don’t believe Franz Kafka. It is not.

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But the human passage from childhood through puberty and the development of adult sexual characteristics also is regulated by a brain-derived neuropeptide that is controlled by genetics, environment and nutrition. Understanding how this process works in insects sheds light on human development.

“From a biological point of view, both puberty and metamorphosis accomplish the same goal, to provide reproductive capacity for the species at the appropriate developmental time,” said the study’s lead author, Michael O’Connor, who is a professor of genetics, cell biology and development at the U of M’s College of Biological Sciences where he holds the Ordway Chair in Developmental Biology.

The study, published in this week’s issue of the journal Science, also should lead to new strategies for controlling the bugs that pester our crops and the ones that make us sick too.