The research was led by David Champlin, a biology professor at the University of Southern Maine, and assisted by students Paul Allee of Portland and Steven MacWhinnie of Gray and three colleagues who are professors at the University of Washington and Hirosaki University in Japan.
They also discovered that by manipulating hormone treatments, they could inhibit a caterpillar's growth. According to the researchers this finding would better help to understand how hormones control growth in humans.
National Science Foundation and the Bioscience Research Institute of Southern Maine funded the research. The results of the research appears in Friday's issue of the journal Science.
Champlin said, 'With the caterpillar, many scientists have studied a hormone that causes metamorphosis to advance and another hormone that represses metamorphosis, but have never really asked what starts metamorphosis. When we did we found a new role for the repressor hormone and in the process identified a hormone never before known that starts metamorphosis.'
Researchers foresee wide the implications of their work in areas such as development of anti-cancer agents and even in the understanding of the long-term effects of infant malnutrition.
The study revealed that the metamorphosis-initiating factor was regulated by nutritional content of the caterpillar's food.
When the researchers manipulated the caterpillar's diet, they were able to create strange chimeras that were part caterpillar and part pupa. For instance, the chimeras had caterpillar mouths for leaf chomping as well as the nectar-sipping mouth tubes of the moth. In addition it was found that development of the antennae, legs and eyes were also caught midway between what the caterpillar needs to survive and what a moth needs.
'All of this is leading us to a better understanding of how hormones control growth in animals, including humans. This is also related to stem cell research and regenerative medicine how to coax cells to change their fates,' Champlin said.