In groundbreaking research published in the journal Plant Methods, UC Davis agricultural entomologist Christian Nansen of the Department of Entomology and Nematology and his team of six colleagues from Brazil discovered that plant-plant communication causes physiological changes in plants and these subtle changes can be detected via analyses of leaf reflectance or hyperspectral imaging. The article is titled “Hyperspectral Imaging to Characterize Plant-Plant Communication in Response to Insect Herbivory."
The growing knowledge about plant-plant communication and about plants' ability to assess their environment has led to concepts like “plant neuro-biology” and “plant behavior,” said Nansen, an associate professor who centers his research on host plant-stress detection, host selection by arthropods, pesticide performance, and use of reflectance-based imaging in a wide range of research applications.
“We know that plants don't have a neural system or brain,” said Nansen, “but respected scientists are studying plants as if they did, as if plants are able to assess conditions in their environments, and they can adapt/respond to those conditions.”
“In studies of plant stress signaling, a major challenge is the lack of non-invasive methods to detect physiological plant responses and to characterize plant-plant communication over time and space.” Nansen pointed out. He described the research as “initial evidence of how hyperspectral imaging may be considered a powerful non-invasive method to increase our current understanding of both direct plant responses to biotic stressors but also to the multiple ways plant communities are able to communicate.”
The UC Davis entomologist and his team used leaf reflectance data to detect and characterize plant responses to stressors, knowing that induced stress interferes with photosynthesis, chemical composition and physical structure of the plant, thus affecting the absorption of light energy and altering the reflectance spectrum of the plants.
“For several decades, it has been known that plants communicate – both among individuals of the same species and across species,” Nansen related. “That is, volatiles emitted by one plant can be received by another plant and trigger different physiological responses. It is also well-documented that plants communicate via roots, and sometimes the roots from different plants are brought together in a network of communication and exchange of nutrients through symbioses with mychorriza (soil fungi).”
Nansen credited Professor Richard Karban of the Department of Entomology and Nematology with pioneering efforts in the field of plant-plant communication, and lauded his continuing research. Plants can eavesdrop, sense danger in the environment, and can distinguish friend from foe, says Karban, the author of the landmark book, “Plant Sensing and Communication” (University of Chicago Press). In addition, both Nansen and Karban contributed chapters to the recently published book, “The Language of Plants” (University of Minnesota Press).
Of the Nansen study, Karban said: "This study describes a technique that may provide a relatively quick and inexpensive way to evaluate levels of resistance in plants. If these results are repeatable by other workers in other systems, they will provide a very valuable tool for researchers and growers."
Nansen noted that within "the last decade or so, extremely cutting-edge research in the field of plant-plant communication has been done by people like Dr. Monica Gagliano of the University of Western Australia. "Gagliano has elegantly demonstrated that plants can respond not only to aerial volatile compounds and root secretions but also to sound."
For the research project, Nansen and his team decided to conduct “a very simple experiment with corn plants and stink bugs.” They planted corn plants in separate pots or two in one pot. They subjected some plants to herbivory by stink bugs, while other plants served as control plants.
The scientists collected two types of data: phytocompounds (stress hormones and pigments) and leaf reflectance data (proximal remote sensing data).
“Our research hypothesis was that insect herbivory causes changes in leaf phytocompound levels, and these physiological defense responses are associated with detectable changes in phytocompound levels and in certain spectral bands of leaf reflectance profiles,” Nansen pointed out. As a secondary hypothesis, the researchers predicted that plant-plant communication (from plant with herbivory to an adjacent control plant without herbivory) will elicit both a change in phytocompound composition of leaves and also cause a corresponding change in leaf reflectance.
The result: The first published study, in which comprehensive phytocompound data have been shown to correlate with leaf reflectance. In addition, it is the first published study of leaf reflectance in plant-plant communication.
Nansen and co-author Leandro do Prado Ribeiro of the Research Center for Family Agriculture, Research and Rural Extension Company of Santa Catarina, Brazil, conceived and designed the experiments. The Brazilian National Counsel of Technological and Scientific Development provided partial financial support. Co-author Marilia Almeida Trapp received financial support from a Capes-Humboldt Research Fellowship.
Both are seeking a doctorate at the University of California, Davis. They differ in that Winokur focuses her research primarily on the yellow-fever mosquito, Aedes aegypti, while Portilla's research involves Culex mosquitoes, which transmit West Nile virus and other diseases.
They are alike in that they share the passion of the late William Emery Hazeltine (1926-1994), who worked tirelessly in mosquito research and public health.
Hazeltine, a native of San Jose, was a U.S. Navy veteran who studied entomology at UC Berkeley and received his doctorate in entomology from Purdue University in 1962. He managed the Butte County Mosquito Abatement District, Oroville, from 1966 to 1992, and the Lake County Mosquito Abatement District from 1961-1964.
He was an ardent supporter of the judicious use of public health pesticides to protect public health, remembers Bruce Eldridge, emeritus professor of entomology at UC Davis and former director of the (now folded) statewide UC Mosquito Research Program. Eldridge eulogized him at the 2005 annual meeting of the American Mosquito Control Association (AMCA) as "a man who made a difference." The AMCA journal published his eulogy in its 2006 edition. (See http://entomology.ucdavis.edu/files/154217.pdf)
"Bill was a medical entomologist who had a varied career in the field of mosquito biology and control, but he will forever be remembered as a man who fought in the trenches of the pesticide controversy from 1960 until the end of his life, and who made the safe and efficient use of pesticides in public health a personal crusade," Eldridge said.
In his memory, his three sons--Craig Hazeltine of Scottsdale, Ariz., Lee Hazeltine of Lincoln, formerly of Woodland, and the late Jeff Hazeltine (1958-2013)—established the UC Davis Bill Hazeltine Graduate Student Research Awards, awarding the first one in 1997. Each year they travel to Davis to honor the recipients at a luncheon, timed with their attendance at a scholarship and fellowship celebration, hosted by Dean Helene Dillard, UC Davis College of Agricultural and Environmental Science.
Winokur's funded project: “Identifying Aedes Mosquito Eggs Using Hyperspectral Imaging: a Rapid, Low-Cost, Non-Destructive Method to Improve Mosquito Surveillance and Control.”
Portilla's project: “The Management of Invasive Weeds and their Effects on Larval Culex mosquitoes.”
“Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus are mosquitoes capable of transmitting dengue, chikungunya, yellow fever, and Zika viruses,” Winokur explained in her application. “These species are invasive and present in California and continue to spread, increasing the likelihood of local transmission of these devastating viruses. Additionally, Aedes notoscriptus, an Australian mosquito whose vector competence for many viruses is unknown, has been detected in Los Angeles and is likely to spread in the state. Aedesmosquitoes are readily detected using ovitraps, a cheap and effective sampling method to detect the presence of gravid females. Ovitraps are especially useful when mosquito populations are low as traps for adult Aedes are unreliable. Once collected, the eggs cannot be differentiated using a stereomicroscope. Traditionally, identifying Aedes eggs collected in ovitraps requires hatching and rearing to adult for visual identification, which is time consuming and leads to a time lag for control, potentially allowing invasive species to spread without intervention.”
Winokur is testing “the use of hyperspectral imaging to differentiate between eggs collected from lab colonies of native and invasive Aedes mosquitoes in California. Preliminary data indicate this method shows promise for identifying species and warrants further testing. Once I have created species-specific reflectance profiles and validated my identification method using colony eggs, I will collect field eggs and validate the identification method using these field eggs.” She is working with hyperspectral imaging expert Christian Nansen, agricultural entomologist and assistant professor, UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology, on the project.
Winokur describes hyperspectral imaging as “a powerful tool that recognizes slight changes; therefore, we need to ensure that all samples are collected and conditioned the same way before testing. Samples must be imaged directly on the oviposition paper because exochorion cells are damaged by the ‘glue' the female uses to attach her eggs to the substrate; imaging removed eggs leads to inconsistent reflectance profiles. This method for rapidly identifying Aedes eggs will allow for quick response to the detection of invasive Aedes mosquitoes.”
Winokur is using the 2017 Hazeltine funds to improve identification of invasive Aedes mosquito eggs in California and to attend the 2017 American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene conference. She is also the newly announced recipient of a 2018 Hazeltine Student Research Award for $3,094, this time to investigate Aedes aegypti immune response to Zika virus.
A native of Long Beach, Calif., Olivia grew up in Laguna Niguel, Calif., where she focused on science at the Dana Hills High School Health and Medical Occupations Academy. She received her bachelor's degree in 2015 from Cornell University, majoring in Interdisciplinary Studies and focusing on the environmental effects on human health. She enrolled in the UC Davis graduate program in 2016 as a Ph.D entomology student with a designated emphasis in the biology of vector-borne diseases. Earlier this year, Winokur received a three-year National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship.
Maribel Portilla, currently writing her dissertation, said the three chapters will encompass: the management practices of the invasive exotic weeds, Brazilian waterweed (Egeria densa) and water hyacinth (Eichhornia crassipes), in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and how those practices impact mosquitoes and their habitat; herbicide use in managing those weeds and how herbicides affects the larval habitat; and the direct effects of herbicides on larval mosquito development.
Her goal: “to inform and create better techniques to reduce both mosquito and weed problems."
Like Winokur, Portilla is grateful for the Hazeltine research funds. “I am currently exploring some molecular/genetic techniques (PCR and sequencing) to identify the species of mosquitoes I collected in the different weed/habitat mesocosms, This will be funded by the Hazeltine award I received.”
Portilla, who calls the South Bay home (San Martin, Santa Clara County), holds a master's degree in public health from UC Berkeley, where “I was able to study health and disease within a larger context, and learned to consider the biological and the social determinants of disease.” Her area of expertise incorporates her love for biology and her strong interest in social issues.
“At UC Berkeley School of Public Health, I was able to study health and disease within a larger context, and learned to consider the biological and the social determinants of disease. As I completed my degree, I realized I really missed the research experiences I had as an undergraduate. So, I looked for a way to bridge my new-found passion for public health and basic science research. This led me to UC Davis, where I learned about One Health and am now pursuing a Ph.D in medical entomology. Medical entomology is a perfect example of a One Health field, where I can seek out how interactions between humans and animals impact health. I am particularly interested in researching how disease risk may change as people manipulate the environment."
Her academic life revolves around writing her dissertation; teaching UC Davis classes (she's taught entomology, general biology and One Health classes); research; and public outreach. Since 2012, she has mentored some 30 undergraduate students on developing and executing their research experiments. She praised the “the diversity of my interns; they each brought such important and unique perspectives to the project.”
What are her career plans?
“Due to my diverse interests and skill set, I am very open about my career choices. I have extensive teaching experience, and would love to be a professor with both teaching and research opportunities. However, there are many opportunities beyond academia. My research is introducing me to many other ways in which my work and research can help keep people safe and healthy. I hope to develop a strong research skill set while at UC Davis, and find a career path which takes advantage of my diverse abilities and love for One Health and Public Health."
Portilla mentioned pursuing a career as a teacher in a small liberal arts school to teach public health, general biology and global diseases classes, as well as do outreach and research. “I'm more of a scientist than an entomologist,” she said.
Portilla may also pursue a career working in vector-control health education at the county, district or state level. “I'm open at this point,” she said. Overall, she is geared toward improving public health outcomes through healthier environments. “I care about how outcomes affect the larger population,” she said.
“Bill Hazeltine was an advocate for the use of mosquito control to protect people from mosquitoes and the disease agents they transmit, and he believed chemical control to be a necessary part of the means to accomplish this,” wrote Eldridge, who valued his friendship. “He also considered himself an environmentalist, and billed himself as such on his business cards and on his signature block. He had a vast knowledge of pesticides and pesticide legislation, and a strong belief in the scientific basis for public policy issues related to the safe and effective use of pesticides. Because the federal Endangered Species Act influenced mosquito control, he became an authority on this as well."
“After Bill's death, I was contacted by his sons about the possibility of establishing a William Hazeltine Memorial Scholarship Fund at UC Davis,” Eldridge noted. “They believed this would represent an important contribution because of Bill's strong interest and support of medical entomology research, and because of Bill's admiration of UC programs in mosquito control. The fund has grown to the point where graduate student awards can now be funded just from the interest, and a number of students at UCD have benefited from the thoughtfulness of the Hazeltine family.”
The list of recipients:
- 2018: Olivia Winokur (newly announced)
- 2017: Maribel "Mimi" Portilla and Olivia Winokur
- 2016: Sandy Olkowski, Maribel “Mimi” Portilla and Stephanie Kurniawan
- 2015: Sandy Olkowski, Maribel “Mimi” Portilla and Stephanie Kurniawan
- 2014: Martha Armijos, Elizabeth “Lizzy” Glennon and Rosanna Kwok
- 2013: Jenny Carlson, Elizabeth “Lizzy” Glennon and Sandy Olkowski
- 2012: Jenny Carlson, Kelly Liebman and Sandy Olkowski
- 2011: Brittany Nelms Mills, Kelly Liebman and Jenny Carlson
- 2010: Tara Thiemann and Jenny Carlson
- 2009: Kelly Liebman and Wei Xu
- 2008: Ashley Horton and Tara Thiemann
- 2007: Lisa Reimer and Jacklyn Wong
- 2006: Christopher Barker and Tania Morgan
- 2005: Nicole Mans
- 2004: Sharon Minnick
- 2003: Hannah Burrack
- 2002: Holly Ganz and Andradi Villalobos
- 2001: Laura Goddard and Linda Styer
- 2000: Laura Goddard
- 1999: Linda Boose Styer
- 1998: Larisa Vredevoe
- 1997: John Gimnig
Hoang Danh “Derrick” Nguyen, who is studying for his master's degree in entomology with major professor and agricultural entomologist Christian Nansen of the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology, says that many species of insect pests, pollinators and natural enemies show distinct preferences for environmental edges, as they transition from one habitat to another.
“Characterization of insect pests' spatial distribution patterns can be used to guide and optimize precision pest management,” concluded Nguyen, the lead author, and Nansen, co-author and associate professor.
The paper, titled “Edge-Biased Distributions of Insects: A Review,” indicates that “the prevalence of such edge-biased distributions has considerable implications for how to sample and monitor insects, and it also suggests that in many cases pest management tactics, such as, releases of natural enemies or insecticide applications can be spatially targeted to field edges.”
Nguyen wrote the paper as an undergraduate student. “He decided to write a review article on a topic related to insect ecology and pest management,” Nansen said. “His main goals were to improve his scientific writing and to get familiar with the process of publishing scientific publications. The end result was an article about a very widespread—but poorly understood phenomenon—insects are often spatially aggregated along environmental edges.”
Nguyen traced the history of edge-based distribution of insects in agricultural systems to a study on black bean aphids led by British entomologist C. G. Johnson and published in 1950 in the Annual of Applied Biology. The aphids, major pests of sugar beet, bean and celery crops, spread from the field edges to within, but the edges remained the areas of highest aphid density.
Nguyen also called attention to scientific studies that found that wild bees in high bush blueberry were more prevalent along the edges of orchards, and that the density of the pest, Asian citrus psyllid, prevailed more at the edges of citrus groves than within.
Nansen praised Nguyen's work as outstanding. “Sometimes we professors are fortunate enough to interact with undergraduate students who – even with English not being their first language – possess keen abilities to describe a scientific problem or phenomenon in clearly articulated scientific writing, and Derrick is a great example of that!”
“ We are supposed to focus more and more on ‘diversity' and here we have an undergraduate from Singapore publishing in a very prestigious journal,” he added.
In their paper, the UC Davis scientists suggested that mathematical modeling approaches can partially explain edge-biased distributions but “that abiotic factors, crop vegetation traits, and environmental parameters are factors that are likely responsible for this phenomenon.”
They advocate more research, especially experimental research, “to increase the current understanding of how and why edge-biased distributions of insects are so widespread.”
“In my opinion, discussions about edge-biased distribution of insects tend to be entomocentric; much emphasis is often put on the insects themselves,” Nguyen commented. “However, agricultural insect pests are dependent on their host plants for survival. Interestingly, it has been shown in various systems that agricultural crops also display edge effect as well. Therefore, through my review, I would like to bring attention to this correlation and propose insect-plant interactions as a potential explanation of edge effect and broaden the discussion about this widely observed but insufficiently understood phenomenon.”
Nguyen received a bachelor's degree in plant sciences from UC Davis in December 2017, graduating with highest honors. A high-achieving scholar, he was on the dean's honor list, College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, every quarter since the fall of 2015. He enrolled in the UC Davis graduate student program in entomology in January 2018.
“I am interested in IPM, insect behavior and insect ecology, and greenhouse production of leafy vegetables,” he said. “Currently I am working on projects that explore the potentials of hyperspectral imaging technology as early detection tools for pest infestation and insect host selection based on the framework of preference-performance hypothesis. As my research model, I focus on the interactions between vegetables (bok choy and spinach) and their insect pests (leafminers and armyworms).
His projects include researching:
- Hyperspectral imaging of bok choy and spinach in response to leafminer and armyworm infestation
- Diurnal variation in reflectance signature of plants
- Host selection behavior of leafminers and armyworms based on the understanding of "Preference-Performance Hypothesis"
- Behavioral avoidance of armyworms in spinach and its implication in Integrated Pest Management
Nguyen served as an assistant training officer with the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) from April 2014 to March 2015. For his studies at UC Davis, received a 2015-2019 undergraduate and graduate scholarship sponsored by Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority of Singapore.
“For my career plan, since I am currently sponsored by AVA, I will be working for them for six years upon my graduation,” Nguyen said. “In the long term, I am interested in doing a Ph.D in imaging technology for pest detection, plant health status analysis and food quality analysis.”
Fowles, a second-year doctoral student in the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology, just received a $15,000 grant from the Environmental Protection Agency for his research on “Beetle Larvae as Biodegraders of Styrofoam and Organic Waste” and now has an opportunity to score a $75,000 grant.
Meanwhile, his 100,000 mealworms in the Briggs Hall lab of his major professor Christian Nansen, are munching away in a project that Fowles hopes will make a difference in breaking down Styrofoam--especially a problem in the nation's landfills--and offer sustainable environmental solutions.
The larvae of the darkling beetle larvae, Tenebrio molitor, eat polystyrene or plastic foam, generically known as Styrofoam, a fact first revealed in 2015 by Stanford University researchers.
“It's about insects processing waste,” Fowles said of his research. “In three weeks they ate three-fourths of a pound of Styrofoam, converting it into biodegradable waste.”
“Trevor's project should be viewed as an example of what entomological agricultural research is all about in the 21st Century--developing new and highly innovative ways to recycle resources and more sustainable food production systems," said agricultural entomologist Christian Nansen, an associate professor of entomology who specializes in applied insect ecology, integrated pest management (IPM) and remote sensing.
In addition, the project has an applied evolutionary angle, which Fowles intends to explore.
Fowles received one of 31 Phase 1 grants in in the National Student Design Competition for Sustainability Focusing on People Prosperity and the Planet (P3), amounting to $463,000 in funding. His project now advances to the Phase 2 level, to take place April 7-8 at the National Sustainable Design Expo at the Science and Engineering Festival in Washington, DC.
In his research project, Fowles seeks to design a pilot-scale styrofoam biodegradation unit to take in regional styrofoam and organic waste, and establish a high-performance beetle lineage, or the “best beetle larvae to do the job.” The adult beetles also eat Styrofoam, but not as much.
“Organization of our food systems will be a defining challenge in the upcoming century and I believe insects will play a significant role in transforming our agricultural sectors,” Fowles said.
His design emphasizes economic feasibility, community engagement, and environmental stewardship. To be sustainable, the project is aimed at connecting local community stakeholders with research expertise to produce an ecofriendly alternative for styrofoam disposal. Fowles is zeroing in on four components to meet these objectives:
- optimizing parameters influencing styrofoam biodegradation
- modeling and designing a pilot system that maximizes degradation and nutritional value of beetle larvae
- project integration in collaboration with local agricultural producers and waste management to meet real world waste demands and
- community engagement to share the novel aspect of this concept and educate local school children about the concepts of sustainability.
After biodegrading the styrofoam, the beetles can be pelletized for animal feed, Fowles said, and the excrement or frass can be used as “high-value amendment to compost mixtures.” He figures that that since Styrofoam by itself is a poor nutrient source for the beetle larvae, he eventually will mix it with organic waste materials, such as, pulp from wine and tomato industries, to optimize beetle development.
The darkling beetles and larvae are pests of stored grains, but the larvae are widely used throughout the world as food for humans; for captive pets, including fish, reptiles and birds; and as fish bait. They are reared commercially on fresh oats, wheat bran or grain, and often with sliced potato, carrots, or apple as a moisture source.
In the wild, darkling beetles and larvae are general decomposers, eating decaying leaves, sticks, grasses, and carcasses.
Fowles said he received his first colony of mealworms in 2016 from then graduate student Tom Nguyen at the Bohart Museum of Entomology, now a researcher at the Smithsonian Institution. Fowles purchased his 100,000 mealworms from the insect farm, Rainbow Mealworms and Crickets in Compton.
Fowles, who grew up in West Sacramento, received his bachelor's degree in biology in 2011 from San Diego State University. Before entering the UC Davis graduate student program, he served as a lab manager for five years for Carroll/Loye Biological Research, launched by the UC Davis entomological team of Scott Carroll and Jenella Loye.
In a news release, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt said: “This year's P3 teams are applying their classroom learning to create valuable, cutting-edge technologies. This next generation of scientists is designing sustainable solutions that will help protect public health and the environment and ensure America continues to lead the world in innovation and science for decades to come.”
Newly published research by a seven-member international team of scientists, including UC Davis agricultural entomologist Christian Nansen, points out the dilemma that rice farmers in Bangladesh and elsewhere in Asia are facing: Should we increase fertilizer inputs on our rice fields to maximize yields but then also increase the risk of a pest outbreak by the brown planthopper, Nilaparvata lugens? The planthopper is a major pest of rice in Asia, and it is resistant to many of the available insecticides.
Their research, “Higher Fertilizer Inputs Increase Fitness Traits of Brown Planthopper in Rice,” published July 5 in Scientific Reports of the journal Nature,” is online at http://rdcu.be/tWnE.
“This study underscores the importance of considering crop fertilization as a component of integrated pest management,” said Nansen, whose role included analyzing the data collected in Bangladesh and co-authoring the research paper. “That is, the management practices, including fertilizer regimes, impact the risk of pest outbreaks--just like the risk of humans falling ill is affected by our diet, the same applies to crop plants!”
In their research, conducted in Bangladesh, the scientists investigated the effects of three principal fertilizer components--nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium—on the development of potted rice plants and their effects on fitness traits of the brown planthopper.
“Compared to low fertilizer inputs, high fertilizer treatments induced plant growth but also favored brown planthopper development,” the scientists wrote in their abstraction. “The brown planthopper had higher survival, developed faster, and the intrinsic rate of natural increase was higher on well-fertilized than under-fertilized plants. Among the fertilizer inputs, nitrogen had the strongest effect on the fitness traits of brown planthopper.”
Rice, the primary food stable for more than half of the world's population, is cultivated in at least 114—mostly developing—countries. More than 100 million households in Asia and Africa derive their income from rice production. However, due to the growing population's increased demand for more rice, and limited land for production, yields must increase by at least 70 percent over the next three decades, Nansen said. “In many developing countries, increased use of fertilizers is a response to increase demand for rice.”
Nansen is an assistant professor with the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Entomology, and an affiliate of Bangladesh Rice Institute and the Zhejiang Academy of Agricultural Sciences, Hangzhou, China. He uses his international expertise to zero in on more sustainable farming systems, better food production and fewer pesticides.
Five members of the team are based at the Bangladesh Rice Institute in Gazipur, Bangladesh: M. P. Ali, M. M. Rashid, N. Ahmed, M. Jahan, and K. S. Islam. Co-author J. L. Willers is with the United States Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service, Southern Insect Management Research Unit, Stoneville, Missouri.
Over the past decade, yield losses substantially decreased in Asia due to a widespread outbreak of the brown planthopper, the researchers said.1 For example, the Central Plains of Thailand sustained persistent planthopper outbreaks for 10 consecutive growing seasons from 2008 to 2012, with losses worth $52 million or equivalent to about 173,000 tons in 2010. The same pest was responsible for losses of around 1 million tons in Vietnam in 2007, and resulted in a government freeze on rice exports.