VANCOUVER - The days of the mountain pine beetle gnawing, unchecked, through the forests of B.C. and north-central Alberta could be numbered, thanks to a microscopic breakthrough.

Scientists at the University of British Columbia and the Michael Smith Genome Sciences Centre have decoded the genome of the voracious pest, permitting the first crystal clear look at how the little beetle wreaks such tremendous havoc.

A study published in the journal Genome Biology shows the genome, the genetic coding that makes the beetle unique, reveals extreme variations among individuals of the species, more than four times as many differences as those found among humans.

The wide variety equips the mountain pine beetle to easily switch from its current diet of lodgepole pine to target other trees, such as jack pine forests.

Researchers from the University of Northern B.C. and the University of Alberta say the bug also has genes that allow it to defeat a tree's defence compounds and others that degrade plant cell walls, allowing it to suck up nutrients from the tree.

The pine beetle is only the second beetle ever sequenced and Christopher Keeling, a research associate at the Michael Smith Genome Sciences Centre says identifying its genome can help manage the pest in the future.