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Discovery of a lipid synthesising organ in the auditory system of an insect

Lomas, Kathryn and Greenwood, David and Windmill, James and Jackson, Joseph and Corfield, Jeremy and Parsons, Stuart (2012) Discovery of a lipid synthesising organ in the auditory system of an insect. PLOS One, 7. ISSN 1932-6203

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Abstract

Weta possess typical Ensifera ears. Each ear comprises three functional parts: two equally sized tympanal membranes, an underlying system of modified tracheal chambers, and the auditory sensory organ, the crista acustica. This organ sits within an enclosed fluid-filled channel–previously presumed to be hemolymph. The role this channel plays in insect hearing is unknown. We discovered that the fluid within the channel is not actually hemolymph, but a medium composed principally of lipid from a new class. Three-dimensional imaging of this lipid channel revealed a previously undescribed tissue structure within the channel, which we refer to as the olivarius organ. Investigations into the function of the olivarius reveal de novo lipid synthesis indicating that it is producing these lipids in situ from acetate. The auditory role of this lipid channel was investigated using Laser Doppler vibrometry of the tympanal membrane, which shows that the displacement of the membrane is significantly increased when the lipid is removed from the auditory system. Neural sensitivity of the system, however, decreased upon removal of the lipid–a surprising result considering that in a typical auditory system both the mechanical and auditory sensitivity are positively correlated. These two results coupled with 3D modelling of the auditory system lead us to hypothesize a model for weta audition, relying strongly on the presence of the lipid channel. This is the first instance of lipids being associated with an auditory system outside of the Odentocete cetaceans, demonstrating convergence for the use of lipids in hearing.