Insect Genetics

Many researchers within the School of BioSciences employ genetics to understand insect biology. Their motivations vary widely. Some are interested in controlling pest insects that threaten agriculture or vector disease. Some are interested in studying the evolution of various aspects of the most diverse group of animals on the planet. Others are attracted to the model insect Drosophila melanogaster because it has unparalleled genetic tools, resources, and knowledge bases that can inform fundamental biology that in turn helps us understand human disease. Some are using insects to measure the health of the environment.

Labs / Groups

Research Labs and Groups associated with Insect Genetics include:

  • Dr Michael Murray – Developmental genetics of Drosophila

    Lab head: Dr Michael Murray (contact)


    The Murray lab investigates the cellular mechanisms of morphogenesis, which play a central role in the formation of multicellular organisms. One of the most important mechanisms is the ability of cells to switch between a stationary form to a migratory form, and back again.  These processes are called the epithelial mesenchymal transition (EMT) and mesenchymal epithelial transition (MET). They are employed at multiple stages during development, but also play a key role in cancer, by allowing cells of a primary tumour to become migratory and metastasise to second sites in the body.
    The lab uses the sophisticated genetic tools of the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster, one of the premier model organisms for biomedical research. In a recent large scale RNAi screen for genes promoting EMT we identified the axonal chemoattractant Netrin. Netrin is required for the 'eversion' of the fly wings, a process involving EMT. Surprisingly, Netrin and its receptor Frazzled/DCC are also required for MET during the formation of the embryonic intestinal epithelium. Using a range of molecular biology techniques and fly genetics we are now unravelling the complex biology of Netrin signalling in controlling EMT and MET. We are also following up on other genes uncovered in the screen, such as the Polycomb Group epigenetic repressors.

    Research Areas

    • The role of Netrin in the wing eversion EMT;
    • The role of Netrin in the MET of the embryonic intestinal epithelium;
    • The role of Polycomb Group genes in promoting epithelial/mesenchymal plasticity;

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  • Prof. Phil Batterham – Neurogenetics, Behaviour and Systems Biology in Insects

    Lab head: Professor Phil Batterham (contact)


    Our group studies the interaction of chemical insecticides with pest and beneficial insects.  Understanding this interaction will underpin the development of more effective and sustainable control strategies, with a reduced environmental impact.

    Our research focuses on two widely used classes of insecticides (the neonicotinoids and the spinosyns), both of which target nicotinic acetylcholine receptors (nAChRs) in the insect brain.  These insecticides serve as excellent chemical probes that, when used in combination with nAChR customised mutants generated with CRISPR, allow a detailed analysis of the role of specific receptor subunits and neurons in behaviours including mating, locomotion and sleep.

    Insecticides, like other toxins, are metabolised and transported around the body.  Working with Richard O’Hair’s group in Bio21, we have developed mass spectrometry methods that allow insecticides and their metabolites to be tracked on their journey from ingestion to the brain to excretion. Combining the tools of genetics, toxicology and mass spectrometry, the genes responsible are being identified.

    Mutations in the nAChR, metabolic and transporter genes can confer insecticide resistance.  In studying these genes in model non-pest insect (the vinegar fly), we have developed the capacity to predict the genetic basis of insecticide resistance before it arises in pests.  Thus, our research can improve resistance management strategies for current generation insecticides and improve the design of insecticides of the future.

    One of the challenges in working on insect pests has been the lack of available genetic resources to facilitate research.  Our laboratory has played a leadership role in the sequencing of the genomes of two major agricultural pests - the sheep blowfly and the cotton bollworm.

    Research Areas

    • The role of the nAChR subunits in specific behaviours and responses to insecticides
    • Identification of genes involved in the transport and metabolism of insecticides
    • Impact of sub-lethal doses of insecticide on insect development and behaviour
    • Pest insect genomics

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  • Dr Charles Robin - Insect population genetics and molecular evolution

    Lab head: Dr Charles Robin (contact)


    We are interested in the genetic basis of adaptation and the molecular evolutionary processes that are associated with it. A major interest is the ways in which insects evolve to become resistant to insecticides. We identify putative resistance genes using Genome Wide Association Studies, we assess whether these genes have contributed to field resistance by looking for signs of 'selective sweeps' in population samples, and obtain a mechanistic understanding of their function using various genetic manipulation techniques. We also use comparative genomic and transcriptomic approaches to (i) examine the gene families that are involved in detoxification of foreign compounds (including, but not limited to, insecticides) (ii) understand the divergence of key developmental pathways in insects and (iii) identify protein targets for novel insecticides. Much of our work is with the model insect Drosophila melanogaster, but we also work with moths, beetles and aphids with the objective of developing better insect control methods.

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  • Dr Alexandre Fournier-Level - Adaptive Evolution

    Lab head: Dr Alexandre Fournier-Level (contact)

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  • Professor Ary Hoffman - Pest and Environmental Adaptation

    Lab head: Professor Ary Hoffmann (contact)

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  • Dr Luke Holman - Evolution and genetics of sex, sociality and communication

    Lab head: Dr Luke Holman (contact)

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  • Dr Jon Martin - Phylogeny and evolution of chironomid midges

    Lab head: Dr Jon Martin (contact)

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  • Dr Paul Umina - CESAR: sustainable agriculture
  • Dr Andrew Weeks - CESAR: sustainable agriculture