January 30, 2009

Serotonin may control locust, study shows

Serotonin, a chemical that moderates behavior in animals, has been shown to change the aloof desert locust into partying fiends, British researchers said.

The discovery, published Friday in the journal Science, could lead to methods of inhibiting the formation of locust swarms, The New York Times reported. The infestations, which can cover hundreds of square miles with the vegetation-destroying insects, ravages agriculture and costs millions to control.

While earlier research found sensory stimuli behind the locusts' shifting movements from a solitary to group mentality, the new research by Michael Anstey of the University of Oxford, Stephen Rogers of the University of Cambridge, and others, shows a chemical basis for the behavioral change.

The researchers said they found the time frame for behavioral change correlated with an increase in serotonin in a locust's central nervous system. They showed if the production or action of serotonin were blocked in solitary locusts, those insects would not undergo a behavioral shift.

To us this really was the 'Eureka!' moment, Anstey said during a news conference.

Scientists struggled to understand swarming behavior for decades, he said, and now all of a sudden we understand the process enough to stop it from happening.