Article image

Understanding how insects distinguish between sugars

At Yale University, a team of researchers led by Professor Joel Butterwick has made significant strides in understanding how insects differentiate between various types of sugars. Contrary to humans, who have one receptor for sweet tastes, insects use a complex receptor array for specific sugars.

The study, published in the journal Nature, reveals deep insights into sensory capabilities in the animal kingdom and suggests new biotechnological applications.

The complexity of sugar detection among insects

Sugar plays a vital role in the diets of both animals and humans, serving as a crucial source of energy. However, the mechanisms behind sugar detection in insects have long puzzled scientists.

Butterwick and his team focused on a particular receptor found in silk moths, notable for its selectivity towards D-fructose. Surprisingly, despite its specificity, this receptor can bind to multiple sugars without activating, suggesting a complex mechanism at play.

Activation of the sugar receptor

The investigation revealed that the receptor’s activation is not solely dependent on the sugar-binding to its pocket. Instead, the activation process involves a molecular bridge within the receptor, which facilitates a shape change essential for signaling.

Through atomic-scale mapping, the team discovered that D-fructose could engage this bridge and trigger the necessary shape change. This capability is not shared by similar sugars like L-sorbose.

“What we think is interesting about that is that there are interactions happening outside of the pocket that act as a mechanism of selection,” said Butterwick. “And evolution likely works on both aspects.”

“For example, a less specific receptor than this one maybe binds more molecules or maybe its bridge is easier to activate. With multiple aspects to act upon, there are more ways for evolution to fine-tune these receptors.”

Implications for science and technology

The discovery has significant implications for understanding how taste and smell guide animals in navigating their chemical environments. Furthermore, it holds promise for developing advanced biosensors that detect diseases through scent.

This technology could mimic how some dogs can identify conditions such as cancer or Parkinson’s disease. While attempts to create such “electronic noses” have faced challenges, insights from this study could overcome previous obstacles by emphasizing the importance of receptor activation in addition to molecule binding.

Controlling disease-transmitting insects

The team plans to study how these findings could control the feeding of disease-transmitting insects. Manipulating insect receptors could offer new ways to fight mosquito-borne diseases, underlining the research’s societal benefits.

“There have been countless cases throughout history where a solved atomic structure paved the way to major discoveries,” said study lead author João Victor Gomes, a graduate student in Butterwick’s lab.

Gomes is from Brazil, which is currently facing a severe dengue outbreak, with more than one million cases of the mosquito-borne disease registered this year alone.

“If we can modulate receptors that affect the feeding behavior of insects, perhaps we could develop better strategies against disease-transmitting mosquitoes,” said Gomes.

Future directions

In summary, Yale University’s study not only sheds light on the intricate world of insect taste receptors but also heralds a new era of scientific exploration and technological innovation.

By unraveling the complexities of how insects discern sugars, the research opens the door to novel approaches in disease prevention and the design of next-generation biosensors, bridging the gap between fundamental science and practical application.

“Uncovering the mechanisms that underlie how receptors recognize various substances will help researchers understand how smell and taste enable humans and animals to decipher the chemical world,” said Butterwick.


Like what you read? Subscribe to our newsletter for engaging articles, exclusive content, and the latest updates. 

Check us out on EarthSnap, a free app brought to you by Eric Ralls and


News coming your way
The biggest news about our planet delivered to you each day