A Blog by Ed Yong

How tiny wasps cope with being smaller than amoebas

Thrips are tiny insects, typically just a millimetre in length. Some are barely half that size. If that’s how big the adults are, imagine how small a thrips’ egg must be. Now, consider that there are insects that lay their eggs inside the egg of a thrips.

That’s one of them in the image above – the wasp, Megaphragma mymaripenne. It’s pictured next to a Paramecium and an amoeba at the same scale. Even though both these creatures are made up of a single cell, the wasp – complete with eyes, brain, wings, muscles, guts and genitals – is actually smaller. At just 200 micrometres (a fifth of a millimetre), this wasp is the third smallest insect alive* and a miracle of miniaturisation.

The wasp has several adaptations for life at such a small scale. But the most impressive one of all has just been discovered by Alexey Polilov from Lomonosov Moscow State University, who has spent many years studying the world’s tiniest insects.

Polilov found that M.mymaripenne has one of the smallest nervous systems of any insect, consisting of just 7,400 neurons. For comparison, the common housefly has 340,000 and the honeybee has 850,000. And yet, with a hundred times fewer neurons, the wasp can fly, search for food, and find the right places to lay its eggs.

On top of that Polilov found that over 95 per cent of the wasps’s neurons don’t have a nucleus. The nucleus is the command centre of a cell, the structure that sits in the middle and hoards a precious cache of DNA. Without it, the neurons shouldn’t be able to replenish their vital supply of proteins. They shouldn’t work. Until now, intact neurons without a nucleus have never been described in the wild.

And yet, M.mymaripenne has thousands of them. As it changes from a larva into an adult, it destroys the majority or its neural nuclei until just a few hundred are left. The rest burst apart, saving space inside the adult’s crowded head. But the wasp doesn’t seem to suffer for this loss. As an adult, it lives for around five days, which is actually longer than many other bigger wasps. As Zen Faulkes writes, “It’s possible that the adult life span is short enough that the nucleus can make all the proteins the neuron needs to function for five days during the pupal stage.”

As they get smaller, insects can do away with many of their organs. The feather-winged beetles – twice as big as the M.mymaripenne, but still impressively tiny – have drastically reduced the size of their genitals, guts and breathing tubes. They have totally lost their hearts: at their size, diffusion is enough to carry liquids around their body without the need for a pump. Their wings, like those of thrips and fairy wasps, are little more than wispy strands, rather than the flat oars of most other insects. That’s all they need to paddle through thick air currents.

But the nervous system is trickier to shrink. There’s a lower limit to how tiny neurons can be, and many of them have to be clustered in a chunky brain. This is one of the main things that prevent insects from becoming even smaller. Many insects have solved this problem by partitioning the brain into chest or abdomen, but wasps can’t do that. They only have a very thin connection between their heads and the rest of their bodies. No brain-shifting for them; they have to rely on more extreme adaptations, like paring down their number of neurons, and getting rid of their nuclei.

* The world’s second smallest insect is a close relative of M.mymaripenne called Megaphragma caribea, slightly smaller at 170 micrometres. The record holder is yet another wasp – Dicopomorpha echmepterygis. The males, blind and wingless, are just 130 micrometres long. The females are slightly bigger than M.caribea.

Update: It’s been pointed out to be that “fairy wasps” are members of the family Mymaridae, whereas Megaphragma  belongs to the separate family Trichogrammatidae, members of which do not have a common name in English. Curses.

Reference: Polilov. 2011. The smallest insects evolve anucleate neurons. Arthropod Structure and Development http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.asd.2011.09.001

Hat tip to David Gregory, for pointing me to the paper

40 thoughts on “How tiny wasps cope with being smaller than amoebas

  1. That was a great first paragraph. And reminded me of these lines (attributed in Wikipedia to Swift via de Morgan):

    Great fleas have little fleas upon their backs to bite ’em,
    And little fleas have lesser fleas, and so ad infinitum.

  2. Found reference to “phragma” as meaning, “an infolded part or inwardly extending process of the walls of the thorax of an insect or other arthropod.”

    Perhaps theirs is simply larger in relation to the norm.

  3. It’s worth noting the design of the “wispy strands” serving as wings. Perhaps it can inspire a pattern for capturing wind energy using smaller surface area.

  4. “As it changes from a larva into an adult, it destroys the majority or its neural nuclei until just a few hundred are left…”

    Humans undergo the same changes when they morph into politicians.

  5. In greek (modern) the word thripsala (θριπσαλα) sort of refers to ‘shred’ or ‘shreded’, Not that I think that it is important or related… or is it? take care

  6. *Blackbird* when you say genome size, do you mean number of genes, or amount of DNA? There is a positive correlation between genome size (in terms of the amount of DNA in the haploid genome) and cell size in the eukaryotes (see http://bit.ly/w2gWJP, for instance). It seems to me that it is likely that these wasps are smaller because they are composed of fewer cells (they have relatively few neurons, for instance), so they probably have the same sized genome as the average insect. I’ll bet a lot of money that they have about the same number of genes as Drosophila.

  7. As an entomologist, I’m delighted to follow the discussion. The tiny wasps tried out as potential egg destroyers of forest pests, Trichogramma spp., are often referred to as ‘intelligent dust’, and handled with paintbrushes (and care).
    ‘Thrips’, according to Wikipedia, is Greek for ‘wood louse’, whereas their order denomination ‘Thysanoptera’ means ‘fringe-winged’.

  8. Another possibility for maintaining adequate levels of proteins in the anucleate neurons is transport from other cells. An important source of protein for the developing fruit fly embryonic syncytium is provided by adjoining Nurse cells. Also, mRNA can be transferred. A cool experiment to do with M. mymaripenne would be to stop protein translation after it has reached adulthood by feeding cycloheximide. If it doesn’t require new protein synthesis as an adult the effects on longevity would be negligible.

  9. @David Ortiz – The problem with that theory is that air, like liquids, behaves very differently at that scale than it does at our scale. When we move through water or air, it is hard for us to start but easy to get going. Look at a football, it glides through the air without a problem. Tiny things like this wasp and protozoans have an easy time starting to move, but it’s like they are swimming through molasses.

    Look up Reynold’s coefficient for more detailed info: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reynold%27s_number#Reynolds_number_sets_the_smallest_scales_of_turbulent_motion

  10. Are these insects a threat to people? They’re small enough to be breathed into our lungs. What if that were to happen?

  11. Matt’s experimental design assumes the adult mymarids feed, which I am not sure is true, and injecting one would be an interesting challenge.

    Mites get much smaller than mymarids (smallest know adult mite is ~80 microns long), but don’t have heads, their brains being in their bodies. So it might be interesting to see what is happening with the neurons in some of the smaller mites.

    PS – Don Borror’s Dictionary of Word Roots and Combining Forms has ‘thrips’ as Greek for a ‘wood worm’. Given their form and how they move, that makes more sense than wood louse.

  12. For comparison purposes, the thickness of a single sheet of copier paper is approximately 100 micrometres. This is just a rough approximation to aid with visualization.

  13. While I have a fair degree of interest in science for science sake, I must admit that I’m basically one of those selfish, self-centered humans who always asks – what’s in it for me? So will these things kill the thrips that infest my garden every year and if so where can I get some?

  14. Update: you’ll see above that I’ve stripped out “fairy wasp”. Apparently that name refers to a different group and these critters have no common name.

  15. This article is the coolest thing I’ve read in a while.

    these critters have no common name

    Maybe we should change that. Mini-me wasps? Micro-mini wasps? Efficiency wasps? (OK, someone with some creativity is going to have to help out here.)

  16. Instead of wasps, how about wisps?

    Nitpick: the record-holding tiny bugs are 139 µm, not 130, (according to the article referenced).

  17. What I’m curious about and didn’t see it referenced in the article is how in the world is such a small insect discovered?

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