August 25, 2012

Sunbathing Could Help Bugs Fight Off Germs

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports — Your Universe Online

While many scientists believe that there is a link between sunbathing and skin cancer in humans, some bugs could actually benefit from prolonged exposure to the sun's UV rays, scientists from one prominent Canadian university claim in a recent study.

According to BBC Nature Reporter Ella Davies, researchers from Simon Fraser University (SFU) studied Western Boxelder bugs, which release pungent chemicals when they group together in sunlit places. They discovered that those strong-smelling compounds can actually help the bugs stay healthy by fighting off germs that live on leaves, she added.

The study, which was conducted by former SFU graduate student Joseph J. Schwarz and biology professors Gerhard Gries and Zamir Punja, discovered that the insects only secreted the chemicals, known as monoterpenes, during sunbathing sessions, Davies explained.

While previously, experts had theorized that those substances played a role in attracting mates or keeping the bugs safe, the SFU team discovered that the monoterpenes actually keeps them germ free.

"Bugs in the sunshine were observed 'grooming'; wiping their feet and legs across the glands that produce the chemicals," the BBC Nature reporter wrote on Wednesday. "Under a microscope, researchers found that the chemicals engulfed the fungal microbes that thrive on leaf surfaces, altering their cell structure to prevent them from invading the bugs' bodies."

Their findings have been published in the August edition of the journal Entomologia Experimentalis et Applicata.

"Prophylactic sunbathing defends these bugs against pathogens that they encounter in their shelters," Gries said in a statement on Friday. "If they are converting the sun´s solar energy to fuel chemical work, without the aid of microbial symbionts -- organisms that live together with a host, often to their mutual benefit -- we would consider this a highly remarkable feat in the animal world."

"According to the researchers, sunlight appears to activate the biosynthesis of the compounds in the bugs, described as highly gregarious creatures. The chemicals then physically encase fungal spores on the bugs´ body surface and set off a chain of events that ultimately protect them from germ penetration," the university continued, adding that other insects may exhibit a similar behavior, but it has not yet been observed or reported by scientists.