July 24, 2024

The oak timbers of HMS Victory played an unexpected role in securing a scientific research triumph for Great Britain. A Death Watch Beetle – taken from an infected beam Nelson’s great warship – was used to create the first fully sequenced genome of the species.

The project, carried out by scientists at the Sanger Institute and Oxford University and by the National Museum of the Royal Navy conservationists, have made an important breakthrough, say researchers.

the beetle, Xestobium rufovillosum, continues to cause great damage to buildings and boats and also affects the hardwood trade in many countries.

By unraveling the beetle’s genetic blueprint and pinpointing the 476m units of DNA that make up its genome, scientists have taken a major step toward finding new ways to combat deathwatch desecration.

The deathwatch beetle (Xestobium rufovillosum) can infest the structural timbers of buildings and ships. Photo: Tomasz Klejdysz/Shutterstock

By sequencing all the beetle’s DNA, we are now much better equipped to find ways to tackle the damage it causes,” says Prof Mark Blaxter, from the Sanger Institute, where the genome is being sequenced..

The Singer’s involvement in the death watch is part of that Tree of Life initiativewhich involves scientists working with a global network of other genetic projects to sequence the genomes for every known species on Earth.

The goal is to produce an evolutionary history of genes and species for the entire planet.

“The deathwatch is the youngest of the 150 beetle species whose genomes we have already sequenced,” Blaxter added.

“However, none came from monsters with the historical associations of the death watch.”

The deathwatch beetle gets its name of the tapping sound it makes when trying to attract a mate. In the past, people living in old houses, keeping vigil at the sickbeds of relatives, believed that the sound was a harbinger of death, hence the name.

As Mark Twain wrote in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer: “Next the awful tapping of a death watch in the wall at the head of the bed made Tom shudder – it meant that someone’s days were numbered.”

The deathwatch beetle causes damage through the effects of its larvae, which hatch from eggs it lays in wood. The species is particularly fond of old oak trees slightly softened by moisture and fungi, and larvae can gnaw wood for up to 10 years before emerging as adults.

In this way, the death guard beetle can eat and hollow out beams, which weakens entire structures and leads to building collapse – as almost happened in Westminster Hall in 1913.

The medieval roof of Westminster Hall, which was renovated in 2019, almost collapsed in 1913 due to damage from the death beetle. Photo: Simon Turner/Alamy

Old sailing vessels are also affected, including HMS Victory, the world’s oldest naval vessel still in use.

Launched in 1765, the Victory is best known for its role as Nelson’s flagship at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. It was kept afloat until 1922, when it was transferred to a dry dock in Portsmouth and preserved as a museum ship.

It was around this time that the first evidence of deathwatch contamination was observed, said Diana Davis, head of conservation at the National Museum of the Royal Navy in Portsmouth.

“For almost 100 years, the death watch beetle was responsible for the continuous loss of a great deal of historic wood on the Victory,” added Davis.

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“This is something we take very seriously, so this sequence work is a very important development.

“For example, we do not know whether the Victory was the victim of a single infestation of death watch beetle or the subject of multiple waves of attacks. Now that we have its sequence, we have a way to answer this question. It’s very exciting.”

Blaxter added that it’s also possible for beetles to adopt genes from other organisms, such as fungi, and this could help them soften and digest wood.

“By sequencing the deathwatch’s genome, we will be able to see which gene transfers might help the beetle’s larvae eat wood,” he said.

“Such a discovery could have significant benefits, not only in helping to combat the death watch beetle, but also in finding ways to digest wood and promote biogas production.”

Isolating deathwatch specimens from the Victory involved museum staff capturing insects emerging from holes in its wood.

“Every time they found one, they called me and went north,” said Oxford University zoologist Prof Peter Holland, a key member of the project.

“I would then drive south, and we would meet at a roadside cafe halfway between Oxford and Portsmouth on the A34. They would have a beetle in a plastic cup, and I would take it back to our lab. Finally we found a perfect specimen which we passed on to the Sanger Institute.”

The crucial point about sequencing the beetle’s genome is that it allows scientists to look at every protein that makes up that organism, Holland added.

“There will be enzymes, molecules used in communication with other organisms, receptors — all that kind of biochemistry that becomes available once you sequence the genome,” he said.

“You get a completely new understanding of an organism. The conservation applications should then appear a little further downstream.”

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