Although this parasitic wasp can kill insects, it could help save human lives.
The newly sequenced genomes of three parasitic wasp species may open the door to the development of innovative drug treatments as well as a chemical-free approach to pest control -- all from an insect smaller than a pin head.
University of Rochester biologist John H. Werren led the study, published in the journal Science, in which the college's Nasonia Genome Working Group sequenced the genomes of three parasitic wasps.
Commonly known as jewel wasps, these insects are just a fragment of Earth's estimated 600,000 species of parasitic wasp.
These minuscule carnivores sting and lay eggs in a variety of insect species. Their venom is of particular interest to scientists due to its diverse physiological effects. After all, parasitic wasps don't inject their prey to kill it, but rather to transform them into a living nursery for their young.
To facilitate this, the venom inflicts such symptoms as developmental arrest, growth alteration, immune response suppression, paralysis and behavior modification.
According to Werren, many of these venom attributes could potentially hold the key to developing drugs to combat everything from allergies to cancer.
That's an area of particular interest to pharmaceutical entomologist Dr. Stephen Trowell, who agrees that parasitic wasp venom might demonstrate beneficial effects in humans or serve as "leads" that inspire chemists to develop medicines that mimic their actions.
Trowell stressed that while modern western medicine has largely ignored the insect world, 1,000-year-old Chinese medical texts record use of insects for a variety of purposes. Indian and Australian aboriginal medical traditions, as well, used both insects and plants to treat patients suffering from a number of conditions.
In addition to pharmaceutical applications, Werren is also optimistic about the role parasitic wasps might play in the future of pest control.
"Broadly speaking, almost every insect species has at least one parasitic wasp that attacks it," Werren said. "So, along with other species, they keep many insects numbers in check."
Furthermore, each parasitic wasp species only preys on specific varieties of insect. In mapping the Nasonia genome, Werren's team was able to locate the section of the gene responsible for host preference. A fuller understanding of these regions could allow scientists to selectively breed wasps that are better suited to control pests in unbalanced ecosystems.
"Parastic wasps are like smart bombs," Werren said. "They seek out and kill selective insects, so if we can harness that ability we can greatly reduce our dependence on chemical pesticides."
Werren hopes that his team's research opens the door for further scientific examination of nature's vast parasitic wasp population.
Wide Angle: Good Bug, Bad Bug HowStuffWorks.com: Wasps Ladybugs Taken Hostage by Wasps