Robin Beaven and Sheng-yuan Su in the Denholm lab have contributed to the discovery of how one of nature’s most powerful water-conservation systems works.

Research Article 'NHA1 is a cation/proton antiporter essential for the water-conserving functions of the rectal complex in Tribolium castaneum' published in PNAS

Beetles are champions at surviving in extremely dry environments. In part, this property is due to their ability to conserve water that would otherwise be destined for excretion using a system known as the cryptonephridial complex. This complex, one of the most powerful water-conserving systems in nature, recovers water from the rectum and recycles it back to the body. The system can desiccate faeces, efficiently minimizing water loss. It can even harvest water from the atmosphere in some species, thus providing a novel physiological mechanism for water uptake from the environment.

A new collaborative study by researchers from the Universities of Edinburgh and Copenhagen explains how this system functions in the red flour beetle (Tribolium).

Beyond helping to explain how beetles thrive in environments where few other animals can survive, the knowledge could eventually be used for more targeted and precise control of global insect pests. 

Denholm lab
Microscopic cross-section of the beetle's rectum. The picture shows the dry stool in pink surrounded by the rectal cells in gray. The renal (Malpighian) tubule is shown in purple. Photo: Kenneth Veland Halberg