Control of synthesis and release of moth sex pheromones

Supervisors: Prof. David G Heckel and Dr. Astrid T. Groot, Department of Entomology, MPI-CE; Dr. Aleš Svatoš, Research Group MS/Proteomics, MPI-CE

Background: Volatile sex pheromones emitted by female moths attract males over long distances for mating. Species hybridization is avoided by the use of a species-specific pheromone blend. This cocktail is a special mixture of long-chain fatty acid derivatives, often desaturated, with alcohol, aldehyde, or acetate ester functional groups. Pheromone components are synthesized within the cells of a specialized female pheromone gland, and some important reactions also occur on the gland surface just as the components are released into the atmosphere. Although moth pheromone systems have been studied for decades for their role in maintaining existing species boundaries and potential to create new species, how they evolve is largely unknown. This is because many of the enzymes carrying out important biosynthetic steps, and the genes encoding them have still not been identified. The goal of this project is to identify genes responsible for synthesis and release of pheromones in a model system for pheromone research: the two closely related moth species, Heliothis virescens and H. subflexa . This project is ideal for a PhD candidate interested in evolution and chemical ecology, with a strong background in biochemistry or molecular biology.

Project Description: 1. Synthesis of acetate esters. H. subflexa releases acetate esters as a pheromone component, but H. virescens does not. The enzyme responsible for synthesizing these acetate esters will be identified by assay-driven comparisons of their pheromone glands. The gene encoding this enzyme and its upstream region will be isolated from both species. 2. Control of ester synthesis. Two transcriptional repressors from H. virescens that suppress ester synthesis have been identified by QTL mapping. These repressor genes will be identified, and the binding of the repressors to the upstream region of the biosynthetic gene will be explored. 3. Control of ester degradation. Esterase enzyme activity has previously been detected in the cuticle surface of the pheromone gland of H. virescens. This hydrolyzes any acetate esters that may have been made within the gland, preventing their release into the atmosphere. The enzymes responsible for this hydrolysis and the genes encoding them will be identified, and compared for their activity in the two species.

!!Application deadline is September 11, 2015!!

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In a joint initiative, the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology, the Friedrich Schiller University, Jena, the Leibniz Institute for Natural Product Research and Infection Biology and the Leibniz Institute of Plant Genetics and Crop Plant Research are offering an international PhD program. This International Max Planck Research School (IMPRS) gives PhD students the possibility to prepare...

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