A bug's life: CSIRO researchers work to discover the unknowns of Australia's insects

Dr Bryan Lessard and Dr Luana Lins in the lab sequencing bug DNA in the CSIRO's National Collection. Picture: Keegan Carroll
Dr Bryan Lessard and Dr Luana Lins in the lab sequencing bug DNA in the CSIRO's National Collection. Picture: Keegan Carroll

At the national science agency's Black Mountain site, the race is on to name Australia's insects and save nature's "essential workers" from looming threats like climate change.

But while the growing collection has been there for decades, many of them still remain nameless.

CSIRO taxonomist Dr Bryan Lessard and molecular biologist Dr Luana Lins are looking to change that.

"Naming a species is the first step to understanding and protecting that species," Dr Lessard said.

"Taxonomy and naming species gives scientists a universal language to talk about them. If we don't have a species name available, it's invisible to science."

The duo are experimenting with new technologies to deal with the mammoth task of digitising the millions of specimens in the collection, and then sequencing their DNA, to create a database.

Dr Lins is working on a handheld sequencer to help shorten the DNA extraction process from two days to just hours.

"[The sequencer] is like the ink pad - it maps the genetic fingerprint of your sample - and the database is our collection," Dr Lessard said.

"We're taking high resolution images of the specimen, but also extracting the DNA of that reliably identified specimen so you can match the genetic fingerprint of the sample to our reliably identified database and then bingo."

The process will help provide other researchers with a verified database to use but there's also hope the tool will allow biosecurity officials to quickly identify insects arriving in shipments and at airports.

"There are a lot of cryptic species out there that look very similar, but you have to look at their DNA to identify them," he said.

The race to extract DNA from decades-old specimens

Dr Lins explained the artificial intelligence and DNA work they're doing was very complementary.

The AI system was trained to identify species through the catalogue of images the researchers were feeding into it.

But the DNA matches were needed to back it up.

"As Bryan said, some of the species look very similar, even for the trained eye," Dr Lins said.

"And if you have the DNA, it can show [the species] are actually very different."

While the science of DNA has come along way, Dr Lins said extraction from the insect collection was still challenging given the size of some specimens.

She has had to develop workarounds in order to get DNA while keeping the important specimens intact.

"You don't want to waste the whole specimen, you want to have the rest of it so you're getting, like, one leg from something that is already very small," Dr Lins said.

Dr Bryan Lessard and Dr Luana Lins with the CSIRO's bug collection. Picture: Keegan Carroll

Dr Bryan Lessard and Dr Luana Lins with the CSIRO's bug collection. Picture: Keegan Carroll

Many of the species in CSIRO's collection sit in draws for years without names. Their task is to try and catalogue them all and then release that data online.

Dr Lessard said their work has already found success, including developments in extracting DNA from insect specimens more than 80 years old.

"We've been able to get DNA out of the mosquito that was pinned in the Second World War," he said.

"That was from a single leg, about the size of a human eyelash and it's really opened up the way that we use our collections to get DNA out of various storage specimens."

Saving the 'essential workers of the ecosystem'

While many would be upset at the thought of iconic Australian creatures becoming endangered or extinct, it's a bit more of a challenge to drum up public support for the country's insects.

But Dr Lessard said without bugs, many of the more cuddly creatures would starve.

"Insects are the essential workers of the ecosystem," he said.

"Without them we wouldn't have pollination services, nutrient recycling, and a lot of the food web would collapse because a lot of birds and lizards eat them as well."

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The team found a new species of spider wasp - a single male specimen - in Namadgi National Park two years earlier.

While the team have since been back to find more specimens after a bushfire tore through the national park, and burned 83 per cent of the land, they still haven't found another.

With the looming threat of future bushfires, habitation clearing and climate change, Dr Lessard said it was crucial their work continued.

"If the bushfire had ripped through Namadgi, and we didn't know that species existed, it would probably be lost to extinction," he said.

"We are still describing species affected by these bushfires a year after it's torn through Australia using museum collections."

The Namadgi spider wasp is one example. To the untrained eye, it looks no different to other native wasps in the family but Dr Lins said this was exactly why they were doing this work.

Sequencing and cataloguing insect DNA allows researchers to discover new properties that might have been missed by a single, cursory glance.

"We are really dealing with a lot of unknowns," she said.

"Some insects could be very similar and have very similar roles in the environment, but others could be morphologically very similar but have completely different roles, pollinate different things.

"For example, with a wasp, they might actually have completely different chemicals [for stinging].

"We don't know and we want to know."

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This story CSI for bugs: the race to save Australia's 'essential workers' first appeared on The Canberra Times.

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