Genomics solutions to the riddle of the tobacco hornworm sphinx moth

This remarkable moth and strikingly beautiful and very large caterpillar are known by the Latin name, Manduca sexta, but also as the tobacco hornworm, Carolina sphinx moth, goliath worm, or ‘Le sphinx du tabac’. The giant caterpillars are a favourite childhood pet, but they are considered serious agricultural pests as they feed voraciously on tobacco, potato, tomato, and pepper plants. The large size of the caterpillars means that this moth has become one of the most important model species for studying insect physiology, biochemistry, and molecular biology, and sequencing its genome opens many new research avenues.

The large-scale research project to sequence, annotate, and explore the genome of the tobacco hornworm moth started in 2009 and was led by Prof. Michael R. Kanost from Kansas State University and Prof. Gary W. Blissard from the Boyce Thompson Institute and Cornell University. Their efforts were made possible through grants from the US National Institutes of Health and the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. DNA sequencing and genome assembly were performed at the Baylor College of Medicine, benefitting from Prof. Stephen Richards’ experience overseeing genome projects as part of the i5K arthropod genome initiative. Exploring this new wealth of genetic and genomic data relied on the expertise of 114 scientists from around the world, including from the SIB Swiss Institute of Bioinformatics and the University of Geneva Faculty of Medicine. Their findings from exploring the 420 megabasepair genome and its 15’451 encoded genes are published in a comprehensive manuscript in the journal Insect Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.

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