- Shouldn't we be paying more attention to the undiscovered life on this planet while we're exploring other planets for signs of life?
- Shouldn't taxonomy be more valued, appreciated and funded? Shouldn't we be offering more encouragement and training to our students?
Yes, says Jason Bond, the Evert and Marion Schlinger Endowed Chair in Insect Systematics, UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology.
Bond, who joined the UC Davis faculty in 2018 from Auburn University, Alabama, where he directed the Auburn University Museum of Natural History and chaired the Department of Biological Sciences, focuses his research “primarily on the discovery, conservation, and investigation of the pattern and processes responsible for the diversity of life.”
“My research program has been principally aimed to 1) document biodiversity by discovering and describing new species (and higher taxa, genera and families), 2) identify various dimensions of diversity and those underlying evolutionary processes that generate it, and 3) use these findings to identify threatened or endangered populations and taxa,” he writes on his website. “My organismal expertise centers on terrestrial arthropods (spiders, millipedes, and tenebrionid beetles). Current research projects focus on spider and beetle speciation pattern and process, higher level phylogenomics of millipedes and spiders, and understanding broad-scale patterns of biodiversity and relationship to biogeography, habitat destruction, and climate (contemporary and historical).”
“Typically I think the traditional definition of taxonomy is ‘the science of describing and classifying species,'” Bond told us following the podcast. “I think this definition typically misrepresents taxonomy as a purely descriptive science, which it is not. I think taxonomy might be better defined as ‘the science of species delimitation and classification.' Modern taxonomic species are the outcome of an experiment that tests integrative (i.e., using morphological, genetic, ecological, physiological, etc. ) hypotheses of homology, variation and evolutionary relatedness. These species are serve as hypotheses subject to further testing and refinement as more data (e.g., specimens, genomic, etc.) become available.”
Patrick launched the podcast by describing Bond as “one of my hero arachnologists.”
Bond began by calling attention to the “massive number” of undescribed species in the world. For example, there are about 50,000 described species of spiders, he said, but there are “probably 10 times more than that.” Scores of undescribed species are shelved in insect museums.
When Patrick asked him why there's a taxonomic impediment, Bond commented that “most fundamentally, it's hard work,” and that “very few people are being trained as taxonomists” and very few are hiring them. “If you're a taxonomist working on an obscure group,” you may be the first to be cut from your position, he said.
Bond declared there's a big difference between “identifying arthropods and the science of taxonomy. Someone did the underlying science to allow a person to make that identification.”
“What we're talking about is evolutionary biology,” Bond explained. “We seldom see ads at big universities advertising for a spider taxonomist or a mayfly taxonomist. They want evolutionary biologists. As we train students, we should train them as taxonomists who can clearly sell themselves as evolutionary biologists.”
The National Science Foundation (NSF) used to train students in taxonomy in its PEET (Partnerships for Enhancing Expertise in Taxonomy) program. But PEET is now longer accepting grant proposals.
“If we visited another planet,” Bond said, “and discovered new forms of life, it would be nearly impossible to apply DNA barcoding…there is no silver magic bullet out there to automate species discovery and classification.”
When asked how he would resolve taxonomic impediment, Bond related that more exposure and more funding would certainly help. “We spent $2.9 billion on the Perseverance Mars probe,” Bond said, but in comparison, the annual budget of the NSF's Division of Environmental Biology (which includes grants for taxonomists) amounts to about $155 million. “We spend massive amounts of money exploring other planets than the planet we are on.”
“We're ignoring species extinctions in our own back yard,” Patrick added.
Bond agreed. “While we're trying to find intelligent life on other planets, we are destroying some of the life on our own,” the UC Davis professor said, adding that the next frontier--space exploration—always seems to be more exciting than what we have here.
Bond, who has described more than 100 new taxa--families, genera, species of spiders and millipedes--advocates more attention to taxonomy to “generate the enthusiasm that's out there. We need a hero.”
“If I were independently wealthy, I'd establish a taxonomic foundation or institute where we hire taxonomists to work in-residence,” Bond said, adding that to move science forward, we should bring them in from all over world to work on their regional fauna; and give them the training they need--“at least five years to really work and develop a team.”
They do UC Davis proud. Very proud.
They are UC Davis distinguished professor Bruce Hammock, who holds a joint appointment with the Department of Entomology and Nematology and the Comprehensive Cancer Center; researcher Christophe Morisseau of the Hammock lab, and Seiya Kitamura, who studied with Hammock and Morisseau while working toward his doctorate as a member of the UC Davis Pharmacology/Toxicology Graduate Group. Kitamura is now a postdoctoral scholar at Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla.
The Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) applauded the 47-member team of worldwide collaborators “for the development of multidimensional click chemistry, a next-generation click-technology that extends perfect bond creation into the three-dimensional world, opening doors to new frontiers in biomedicine, materials science, and beyond.”
K. Barry Sharpless of the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, who won the 2001 Nobel Prize for Sharpless epoxidation, led the team. “His magic is like the click-chemistry he invented,” Hammock said.
John Moses of the Cancer Center, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, New York, submitted the nomination on behalf of the team.
The team wrote in its award packet: “Click-chemistry and particularly the copper-catalyzed azide-alkyne-Huisgen cycloaddition (CuAAC), has had a profound impact on drug discovery (for which it was intended). It is now the 'go-to' technology in every corner of molecular science. The introduction of Sulfur(VI) fluoride exchange (SuFEx) in 2014 opened up a whole new world of possibilities for reliable bond-forming technology, particularly for chemical biology applications where the fugacity of sulfur-fluoride functional groups are primed for selective covalent bond formation with active protein sites.”
Morisseau described click chemistry “as such a ubiquitous tool in multiple aspects of science that kits are sold and the chemistry utilized without even recognizing where it comes from. Many of the beautiful and informative fluorescent pictures of cells on journal covers are based on click chemistry.”
Always humble, Morisseau quipped that his role on the team was minor, that of a “bench warmer.”
“Every good team has a few bench warmers,” Morisseau commented, looking through the list of team members, considered the “who's who of modern organic chemistry” at multiple stages of their careers.
UC Davis Distinguished Professor Bruce Hammock
Hammock said his involvement in click chemistry started when he was on sabbatical leave at UC San Diego. “Barry explained to me how one could use the SF bonds of SOF4 and related compounds to make additions one at a time and create a defined three-dimensional molecule with high precision. The potential of these reagents to design new pharmaceuticals and agricultural products was really exciting. Thus, our contribution was being there at the right time to show translation into the real world.”
Hammock is known for his expertise in chemistry, toxicology, biochemistry and entomology. Early in his career, he founded the field of environmental immunoassay, using antibodies and biosensors to monitor food and environmental safety, and human exposure to pesticides. His groundbreaking research in insect physiology, toxicology led to his development of the first recombinant virus for insect control
A member of the UC Davis faculty since 1980, Hammock has directed the UC Davis Superfund Research Program (funded by the National Institutes of Health's National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences) for nearly four decades, supporting scores of pre- and postdoctoral scholars in interdisciplinary research in 5 different colleges and graduate groups on campus. He is a fellow of the National Academy of Inventors, the National Academy of Sciences, and the Entomological Society of America. He is the recipient of scores of awards, including the first McGiff Memorial Awardee in Lipid Biochemistry; and the Bernard B. Brodie Award in Drug Metabolism, sponsored by the America Society for Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics. At UC Davis he received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Chancellor, Distinguished Teaching Award and the Faculty Research Lectureship.
Hammock has authored or co-authored more than 1,200 peer-reviewed publications and holds more than 95 patents in agriculture, environmental science and medicinal chemistry.
As director of the UC Davis Superfund Research Program, he pioneered trans-disciplinary research across campus, engaging faculty in multiple colleges and schools “to transform the way we treat diseases in multiple species.”
RSC Horizon Prizes
The RSC Horizon Prizes “highlight the most exciting, contemporary chemical science at the cutting edge of research and innovation,” according to its website. “These prizes are for teams or collaborations who are opening up new directions and possibilities in their field, through ground-breaking scientific developments." The mission of the London-based RSC, founded in 1841, is to advance excellence in the chemical sciences.
- Horizon Team Award
- Bruce Hammock: Lifetime Achievement Award from Chancellor
- Why Science Is Fun (feature on Bruce Hammock)
They matter in the role of bee conservation efforts, as more than 80 percent of bees nest below ground.
So says pollination ecologist Alexandra Harmon-Threatt, an associate professor at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, who will speak on "Beyond Flowers; Examining the Role of Soils in Bee Conservation Efforts" at the next UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology seminar.
The online seminar, the last of the spring quarter, is set for 4:10 p.m., Wednesday, June 2. Host is pollination ecologist and professor Neal Williams. Access the Zoom link here.
In noting that more than 80 percent of bees nest below ground, Harmon-Threatt points out that most univoltine species spend more than 90 percent of their life cycle in contact with soils. (A univoltine species is a species that has one brood of offspring per year.)
"Yet most conservation efforts ignore soils and few research studies consider these critical life stages and possible exposures that occur during them, she says in her abstract. "In a series of studies, our lab has begun to explore how much soils matter and whether ignoring them is to the detriment of conservation."
In her research, Harmon-Threatt zeroes in on understanding the patterns and processes that govern plant-pollinator interactions for conservation. "Pollinators play a vital role in plant reproduction, food production and ecosystem stability but are believed to be declining globally," she says. Her work focuses on identifying and understanding patterns in natural environments to help conserve and restore pollinator diversity. With a particular focus on bees, she investigates how a number of factors at both the local and landscape scale, including plant diversity, isolation and bee characteristics, effect bee diversity in local communities.
Harmon-Threatt received her doctorate from UC Berkeley, where she worked on bumble bee preferences and phylogenetic patterns. She completed a National Science Foundation postdoctoral fellowship in biology at Washington University in St. Louis.
She was recently featured on the podcast, People Behind the Science. Any change in pollinator populations, she told her audience, can have significant effects on natural and agricultural communities. Recent declines in bee populations, in particular, indicate how "little we know about these important insects in their natural environments, she told her audience."
Lewis will cover the life and legacy of African-American entomologist and civil rights advocate Margaret Collins (1922-1996) at his presentation on Tuesday morning, Nov. 2. The long-awaited conference will be hybrid, that is, both virtual and in-person.
Collins will be "the fourth woman and second Black entomologist to be the subject of the Founders' Memorial lecture in the award's 64-year history," according to an ESA news release. (See list of previous recipients.)
'The Termite Man'
Vernard Lewis, who holds a doctorate in entomology (1989) from UC Berkeley, is a recognized national and international authority on drywood termites. He is known for his pioneering research on detection innovations and nonchemical methods of control. Lewis joined the UC Berkeley faculty in 1990 and was the university's first African-American faculty-member hired in the 150-year history of the Rausser College of Natural Resources. He retired July 1, 2017 from a 35-year career as an urban entomologist, the last 26 years as a Cooperative Extension specialist. As Lynn Kimsey, director of the UC Davis Bohart Museum of Entomology and UC Davis distinguished professor of entomology told us in a Bug Squad blog in July 2017: "He was the best; knowledgeable, personable and engaged. I'm really annoyed that he retired."
"He was always the go-to person in Extension when it came to termites, and he had that special personality which enabled him to immediately engage with people," related UC Davis distinguished professor Frank Zalom, a past president of the 7000-member ESA. "I always got the feeling that he genuinely liked what he did, and it showed."
During his career, Lewis focused his research on a variety of urban pests, including not only termites, but ants, bed bugs, cockroaches and wood-boring insects. He authored more than 150 refereed and trade magazine articles and book chapters on termites and other household insect pests. He delivered more than 700 presentations to widespread audiences. Lewis was inducted into the National Pest Management Association Hall of Fame in 2016. Since achieving emeritus, he has been spending his time on university and industry committees and public boards dedicated to increasing diversity, equity, and inclusion for underrepresented minorities and women into STEM careers.
In June 2020, Brite Energy Innovators paid tribute to Lewis as one of the world's Amazing Black Scientists. An excerpt: "At UC Berkeley, Lewis famously constructed a 400-square-foot (37-square-meter) wooden building near the campus for investigating pest insect detection and control; The structure was affectionately known as 'Villa Termiti.' Built in 1993, the building temporarily housed rotating communities of bedbugs, termites, beetles and ants, while Lewis and other scientists studied the insects' habits and tested their resistance to different methods of extermination. These included exposure to X-rays, microwaves, liquid nitrogen and fumigation, according to UC Berkeley."
Another excerpt from Amazing Black Scientists: "Lewis also worked to promote diversity in entomology, and participated in outreach programs to introduce underserved youth to life sciences, insects and biodiversity." He was one of 20 researchers featured in ESA's 2015 book “Memoirs of Black Entomologists,” designed to encourage minority students to pursue careers in science.
Margaret James Strickland Collins was known as "The Termite Lady" during her entomological career that spanned five decades. She engaged in extensive research on termites that included identifying a new species, Neotermes luykxi. "Her pioneering studies on the mechanism and evolution of termite desiccation resistance across various habitats provided foundational knowledge for generations of entomologists, field biologists, and ecologists," said Lewis, who wrote about her in a piece published June 1, 2016 in BioOne journal.
His abstract: "Often legends go unrecognized for their achievements in science and the betterment of society. In the case of Margaret Collins, it has been almost 20 years since her passing, and except for appreciation by a small cadre of termite experts, her contributions to entomology have received scant notice. However, her work and legacy have stood the test of time, and even today, she is considered, and often cited as, the definitive source for differences in toleration and resistance to drying among species of termites. At her core, Margaret was a field biologist, and she demonstrated it through her travels and termite collection trips to a dozen countries. Her long and illustrious career included publishing of scientific papers, tenured faculty positions, and service as a curator of the termite collection at the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, in Washington, District of Columbia. Margaret achieved many firsts during her life. She was the first African American female to be awarded a Ph.D. involving entomology at a major university. In addition, she was the first woman graduate student for the legendary isopterist and Professor of Zoology, Alfred E. Emerson. Her passion for termites remains highly visible in her published works. Her passion for her family and her strong support of civil rights for women and African Americans were less visible except to those she knew personally."'
Born in Institute, W.Va., on Sept. 4, 1922, Margaret was recognized as a child prodigy at age 6, "as evidenced by her being awarded the privilege to check out books at the West Virginia State College Library," Lewis wrote in the journal article. Following her high school graduation at age 14, she went on to receive her bachelor's degree in biology from West Virginia State College in 1943, and her doctorate in zoology in 1949 from the University of Chicago. Her thesis: Differences in Toleration of Drying among Species of Termites (Reticulitermes).
Collins was one of the first African-American women to receive an advanced degree related to zoology/entomology. "Those of us with collegiate degrees are well aware of the challenges and obstacles that can drain enthusiasm and delay completion, which include lack of funding, being away from home, and difficult and demanding courses and class loads," Lewis wrote. "Margaret had all of these, plus more."
"Upon receiving her Ph.D. in 1950 at the University of Chicago, Collins became the first African-American female entomologist," Lewis noted. "In the mid-'50s while on the faculty of Florida A&M, her invitation to speak at a local predominantly white university on biology and equity was cancelled due to a bomb threat. During the Florida A&M Student Council bus boycott of 1955 to protest racial inequality, Dr. Collins volunteered to drive people to work. These activities led to her being closely watched by the police and FBI."
In 1979, Collins coordinated an American Association for the Advancement of Science symposium on "Science and the Question of Human Equality," and later that year, published a book with the same title. The book is "an interdisciplinary look at racism and science, investigating the biological and social realities of individual and group differences," according to the publisher.
Love of Science
Just like Margaret Collins, Lewis shares a love of termites, a love of science, and a love of public service. In the ESA news release, ESA President Michelle S. Smith praised Lewis for his "remarkable career in both research and extension" and as "a role model for current and future generations of insect scientists. His pioneering spirit echoes that of Dr. Margaret Collins, and her story of determination, curiosity, and perseverance will be a perfect complement to our annual meeting showcasing adaptation and transformation in insect science."
The ESA meeting is appropriately themed "Adapt. Advance. Transform."
Yes! "Adapt. Advance. Transform." And let's add one more: "Recognize!"
We're delighted to see this much deserved recognition for two legendary entomologists.
It's World Bee Day, as declared by the United Nations.
"The fourth observance of World Bee Day will be celebrated--in the midst of a still ongoing pandemic--with a virtual event organized by the FAO on 20 May 2021 under the theme Bee engaged – Build Back Better for Bees."
"The event will call for global cooperation and solidarity to counter the threats posed by the COVID-19 pandemic to food security and agricultural livelihoods alongside prioritizing environmental regeneration and pollinator protection. It will be an occasion to raise awareness of how everyone can make a difference to support, restore and enhance the role of pollinators."
The United Nations' site goes on to say: "Bees are under threat. Present species extinction rates are 100 to 1,000 times higher than normal due to human impacts. Close to 35 percent of invertebrate pollinators, particularly bees and butterflies, and about 17 percent of vertebrate pollinators, such as bats, face extinction globally."
"If this trend continues, nutritious crops, such as fruits, nuts and many vegetable crops will be substituted increasingly by staple crops like rice, corn and potatoes, eventually resulting in an imbalanced diet."
"Intensive farming practices, land-use change, mono-cropping, pesticides and higher temperatures associated with climate change all pose problems for bee populations and, by extension, the quality of food we grow."
Two things are for certain:
- Honey bees are responsible for one-third of the food we eat.
- Every day should be World Bee Day.