Serotonin turns peaceful locusts into rampaging swarms

January 30th, 2009 - 4:47 pm ICT by IANS  

Washington, Jan 30 (IANS) What transforms a harmless, solitary and peace loving insect like the desert locust into a rampaging, voracious swarm that blacks out the sky and strips bare vast swathes of standing crops? With desert locusts, the expression of this swarming characteristic spells serious trouble for the hapless farmers caught in their rampaging path. Locusts swarms, billions strong, are known to destroy crop yields in a jiffy.

The villain of the piece is serotonin, neurotransmitter that acts as a chemical messenger between nerve cells. It is present in every multi-cellular organism on the planet, and serotonin receptors are often targeted by antidepressant drugs in humans to increase its availability.

Michael Anstey from University of Oxford and colleagues monitored the levels of serotonin in desert locusts while they triggered both solitary and gregarious behaviour in the creatures, said an Oxford release.

Their results show that locusts behaving the most gregariously (in swarm-mode) had approximately three times more serotonin in their systems than the calm, solitary locusts. This raises the prospect that individual neurons that drive this swarming behaviour could be identified and targeted.

These findings were published on Friday in Science.

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