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Wily roaches adapt with new survival trick

NEW YORK — Everyone knows that cockroaches are the ultimate survivors, with enough evolutionary tricks up their carapaces to have thrived for 350 million years and to have completely adapted to the human species.

But the nature of the adaptation that researchers in North Carolina described Thursday in the journal Science is impressive even for such an ancient, ineradicable lineage, experts say. Some populations of cockroaches evolved a simple, highly effective defense against sweet-tasting poison baits: They switched their internal chemistry around so that glucose, a form of sugar that is a sweet come-hither to countless forms of life, tastes bitter.

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The way the roach’s senses changed, experts say, is an elegant example of quick evolutionary change in behavior and offers the multibillion-dollar pest control industry valuable insights into enemy secrets, perhaps even revealing some clues for the fight against malaria-carrying mosquitoes, which are far more dangerous to human health than roaches.

“This is a fantastic discovery,’’ said Walter S. Leal, the head of the entomology department at the University of California, Davis.

Leal was not part of the research.

The impact of the discovery, he said, was both fundamental and practical.

Grzegorz Buczkowski, an entomologist at Purdue University who was not involved in the research, said the industry was always developing new poisons.

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