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Study reveals the superpowers of the female locust

A new study from Tel Aviv University has revealed that the female locust has a central nervous system that can be stretched beyond what seems possible. As the locust lays her eggs in the ground, she can stretch her abdomen nearly three times its normal length without causing any irreparable damage.

“This ability is almost inconceivable from a morphological point of view, and as far as we know it has almost no equal in nature,” said the researchers.

“We are not aware of a similar ability in almost any living creature. Nerves in the human nervous system, for example, can stretch only up to 30 percent without tearing or being permanently damaged. In the future, these findings may contribute to new developments in the field of regenerative medicine, as a basis for nerve restoration and the development of synthetic tissues.”

The experts report that while the nervous system of sexually mature females demonstrates fully reversible hyper-extensibility of up to 275 percent, stretching in premature females and males is much more limited. According to the researchers, it remains unknown how the abdominal nervous system accommodates such extreme elongation.

“When the female locust is ready to lay her eggs, she digs a hole in the ground that will offer them protection and optimal conditions for hatching. For this purpose, she is equipped with a unique digging apparatus, consisting of two pairs of digging valves which are located at the tip of the abdomen, on either side of the ovipositor (a tube-like organ used for laying eggs),” explained Dr. Bat-El Pinchasik, who led the study. 

“As she digs, the female extends her body, until sensors located along its length signal that she has reached a suitable point for depositing her eggs.”

“Thus, an adult female, whose body length is about four to five centimeters, may, for the purpose of laying her eggs, stretch her body to a length of 10-15 centimeters, then quickly return to her normal length, and then extend again for the next egg-laying.”

“The superpower of the locust is almost something out of science fiction. There are only two other known examples in nature of a similar phenomenon: the tongue of the sperm whale, and a certain type of sea snail whose nervous systems are able to extend significantly due to an accordion-like mechanism they have,” said study co-author Professor Amir Ayali. “We sought to identify the biomechanical mechanism that gives the female locust its wonderful ability.”

Dr. Pinchasik noted that contrary to previous theories, the team did not find any accordion-like mechanism. “We discovered that the nervous system of the female locust has elastic properties, which enable it to elongate and then return by itself to its original state, ready for reuse, without any damage caused to the tissue. This finding is almost incomprehensible from a biomechanical and morphological point of view.”

Professor Ayali said that in further studies, the team will investigate the matter in depth, with the aim of identifying the specific mechanism that enables this unique feature. “We hope that in the future our findings will help to develop synthetic tissues with a high level of flexibility, and to restore nerves in regenerative medicine therapies.”

The research is published in the journal iScience.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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