For the rats of Hamelin, it was the Pied Piper’s tune. For the destructive sea lamprey of the Great Lakes, it’s a chemical attractant, or pheromone, released by lamprey larvae living in streambeds. Following the pheromone trail, adults are drawn to streams favorable for spawning. Researchers have long wanted to identify the pheromone so it could be synthesized and used to control the sea lamprey, which laid waste to Great Lakes fisheries of lake trout and other species in the mid-20th century. Now, a team of University of Minnesota researchers has identified the three major components of the pheromone and synthesized the principal one, a novel steroid akin to a shark steroid that possesses anticancer activity. This is the first migratory attractant to be identified in any fish. The work is the cover story for the November issue of Nature Chemical Biology and will be published online in the journal Sunday, Oct. 2.
The lamprey is one of the earliest relics of vertebrate evolution, dating back nearly 400 million years, before the evolution of jaws and bony skeletons. The species parasitizes other fish by attaching with their circular, toothy mouths and sucking the body juices. A single lamprey will feed for about a year, consuming on average 40 pounds of fish. In the Great Lakes, their prey have been commercially valuable species like lake trout and whitefish.
Currently, the Great Lakes Fishery Commission (GLFC) controls lamprey by means of a poison that kills lamprey larvae in streambeds. It also kills every invertebrate it comes in contact with, and sometimes fish. The lampricide is tanker-trucked to streams, some of them in populated areas, in an expensive, labor-intensive and unpopular undertaking. The GLFC is eager to use a synthetic form of the newly found pheromone to replace the poison by luring lamprey to traps and sterilizing the males, the researchers said. Using the pheromone would be environmentally friendly and less expensive.
Deane Morrison | EurekAlert!
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