A fascinating discovery was recently published in the magazine Science on perhaps the world’s most adaptable insect: the cockroach. From the abstract:
In response to the anthropogenic assault of toxic baits, populations of the German cockroach have rapidly evolved an adaptive behavioral aversion to glucose (a phagostimulant component of baits). We hypothesized that changes in the peripheral gustatory system are responsible for glucose aversion. In both wild-type and glucose-averse (GA) cockroaches, D-fructose and D-glucose stimulated sugar–gustatory receptor neurons (GRNs), whereas the deterrent caffeine stimulated bitter-GRNs. In contrast, in GA cockroaches, D-glucose also stimulated bitter-GRNs and suppressed the responses of sugar-GRNs. Thus, D-glucose is processed as both a phagostimulant and deterrent in GA cockroaches, and this newly acquired peripheral taste sensitivity underlies glucose aversion in multiple GA populations. The rapid emergence of this highly adaptive behavior underscores the plasticity of the sensory system to adapt to rapid environmental change.
As The New York Times notes, what this means is that the cockroach has somehow evolved a way to make glucose smell/taste bitter to it, and it can thus avoid modern-day traps that use glucose as a primary ingredient. Instead of taste buds, roaches have taste hairs on many parts of their bodies. The three North Carolina researchers concentrated on those around the mouth area and on two types of nerve cells that sense tastes and respond by firing electrical signals to the brain. One responds only to sugars and other sweet substances; the other responds only to bitter substances. Whenever a molecule of something sweet attaches to a sweet detector, it fires electrical impulses and the roach brain senses sweetness, which makes it want to eat whatever it is tasting. Whenever a molecule of something bitter attaches to the bitter detector, that cell fires and the brain senses bitterness, which makes the roach want to avoid that substance.
Evolutionary advantages like this have helped the cockroach endure for millions of years. Fascinating.