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Insect Timing

Final Report Summary - INSECTIME (Insect Timing)

What are biological clocks?
Scientific interest in biological clocks was initiated nearly 300 years ago. Rhythmicity is observed in nearly all higher organisms (and some bacteria) at behavioural and physiological levels and the underlying molecular clockworks allow the animal, plant, even bacterium, to anticipate, instead of merely react to, the environmental changes due to the Earth’s rotation round its axis and around the Sun. The most obvious environmental challenges include daily light-dark cycles, temperature oscillations and seasonal variations in the length of the day.
Circadian clocks control all the processes which display an oscillation of about 24 hours. Clock proteins in our brain and other organs cycle in abundance throughout the day and determine our cycles of sleep-wakefulness, hormone levels, mood, body temperature and vigilance. The biological clock is influenced by both genetics and lifestyle and genetic variations makes us either morning or evening types (larks or owls). Mutations in human canonical clock genes are associated with several disorders such as chronic sleep disturbances, manic-depression and advanced and delayed sleep phase syndromes.
Concerning lifestyle, modern technology has permitted society to escape the temporal constraints that were imposed by the natural environment on our ancestors, allowing altered and irregular behavioural patterns, meal schedules and lighting regimes. Social commitments and shift work continually challenge our internal clock, causing a syndrome called “social jetlag“. A wide variety of diseases and health problems have been shown to be mediated or aggravated by this chronic disturbance of the circadian clock, such as sleep, gastrointestinal and cardiac disorders, hypertension, obesity and cancer.
Seasonal clocks are calendars that regulate physiological and behavioural processes which repeat themselves every 12 months. We know that our appetite, mood, weight, sleep and fertility change throughout the year. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), which is characterised by depression, irritability, increased sleep and weight gain, recurs annually in some people during late autumn and is triggered by the reduction in daylength – it is as if they are entering hibernation! The circadian clock genes were initially identified in the fruitfly, Drosophila, and remarkably they were subsequently shown to be almost completely conserved in the clock mechanism of mammals. Furthermore, the seasonal clock shares molecular components with the circadian clock, so the rationale for working on insects in both circadian and seasonal time domains is compelling.
What is INsecTIME?
The Marie Curie Initial Training Network INsecTIME aims to train young scientists in circadian and seasonal insect biology. The consortium consists of 14 research groups, located in 7 European countries plus Israel and includes three SMEs. The principle investigators (PIs) in whose laboratories the training will be provided are among the most renown in this field in Europe, with years of experience in the molecular genetic dissection of timing in a variety of insect species. Some of these species are model organisms with well-understood genetics like fruitflies, whereas others are pests such as olive flies. Insects allow us to perform state-of-the-art experiments, which simply are not feasible in humans or even mice (the favourite mammalian model organism). In addition, the expense of maintaining large numbers of mice, their long generation times and, not least, the ethics involved in working with mammals, makes insects the ideal substitute.
Given the conservation of molecular clock mechanisms mentioned earlier between flies and mammals, what we find out in insects will tell us something important about humans. It is clear that the study of timing genes has broad implications for intervening in the life cycles of insects of agricultural and medical importance: learning how to manipulate the seasonal life cycle of pest insects represents a rational strategy for trying to control them particularly as global warming is extending their geographical ranges.
What do we want to achieve?
We have three main objectives. The primary goal of INsecTIME is to produce a new generation of competitive and skilled young European researchers in the area of circadian and seasonal clocks. Our consortium will provide scholarships to 12 Early Stage Researchers (ESRs), and to three more Experienced Researchers (ERs). Within the consortium we will create a tight network that will benefit from all the partners’ areas of expertise.
Our second aim is to enhance our knowledge on how circadian and seasonal clocks work at the genetic, evolutionary, neurobiological and ecological levels. A better understanding of the subject in the long term can eventually lead to a substantial improvement in the quality of our lives.
The third objective is to make our achievements understood and appreciated by the lay-(wo)man. Shift-workers (about one quarter of the population of western Europe) are not aware of chronobiological tricks or even drugs that are available to make their uncomfortable lives easier. Our scientific efforts need to find an easy and effective way to reach the public and to make our discoveries available to everyone.
What have we achieved?
INsecTIME officially started on April 1st 2013 but most researchers were appointed to their positions between May and December 2013. We have organised and attended 6 consortium meetings (kick-off in Paris, Leicester, mid-term Review in Groningen, meeting and workshops in Israel, Krakow and wrap-up in Wuerzburg). Eight Technical and six Commercial courses were organised to coincide with our meetings including the workshop organised by one of our SMEs in Israel. All these courses included lectures provided by world-renown experts in their fields including our two international advisors. Overall, the first training objective of the consortium has been fully accomplished.
As for the second objective, we have established the groundwork to study the biological clock in insects of commercial and economical relevance. Furthermore our work on well validated model organisms such as the fruitfly, Drosophila melanogaster and Nasonia vitripennis has enhanced our understanding of how both the circadian and seasonal clock work in these species.
Last but not least two major outreach INsecTIME Open Days took place at the University of Leicester in June 2014 and at the University of Wuerzburg in February 2017. In these occasions our students and partners had the opportunity to directly present their research to the general public, thus enhancing the public understanding of this fascinating subject.