Since the dawn of agriculture thousands of years ago, humans have altered the global landscape. Humans transported crop species and plants across the world for feed and harvest. Agriculture allowed for modern civilization to progress, ultimately resulting in the construction of cities, urban and suburban areas. As humans move further and further away from natural landscapes, it comes at a significant cost to communities of various organisms. With these human-induced changes in mind, Dr. Kim (La Pierre) Komatsu (Fig. 1) of the Smithsonian Environment Research Center studies plant communities and connections to ecosystem processes. Dr. Kim investigates interactions between plant communities and plant biomass accumulation, insect herbivores, and nutrient acquisition, always considering how global change affects such interactions.
Written by: Maggie Hartman, Zac Lamas, Arielle Arsenault-Benoit
If you have been to the coastal tropics or subtropics, you may have seen lush trees, with almost science fiction-like root systems. These are trees in the genus Rhizophora, colloquially known as the mangroves. Mangrove forest ecosystems are coastal and found between 30° N and 30° S. They are a flowering angiosperm, with a hydrochorous propagule dispersal mechanism (dispersal occurs via water). The propagules are seedlings, formed by the embryo growing through the seed coat and fruit wall, while still attached on the mother tree, a phenomenon known as vivipary.. These propagules depend on the ocean surface current to disperse both close by and remotely; they are capable of floating in ocean currents for up to three months or more. Alternatively, mangrove gene dispersal can occur via pollen transfer by wind or insects. Ideally, these propagules are distributed to new environments where they can sprout, and mature into an adult tree. If the new tree is capable of maturing and reproducing in a new area, we would cite this as an example of gene flow. If you’re having a hard time imagining this, just think of the cosmopolitan coconut. Although technically the coconut is a drupe and not a propagule, their distribution in ocean currents is synonymous. Unfortunately for our hopeful mangroves, their propagules have to overcome barriers that restrict their distribution.
Written by: Elizabeth Brandt, Mintong Nan, Anna Noreuil, Katie Reding
How it is possible to maintain a segmented body plan after loss of a key developmental gene? Dr. Alys Jarvela, a biochemist, geneticist, and postdoctoral scholar in the Pick Lab at University of Maryland, presented her research to address this precise question.
Written by: Katie Reding, Serhat Solmaz, and Arielle Arsenault-Benoit
Adaptation to abiotic stressors and environmental change is imperative to survival in a rapidly changing world. Dr. Reid Brennan, an ecological geneticist and postdoctoral scholar in the Pespeni Lab at University of Vermont, presented his research in aquatic systems to explore the genomic basis of populations’ responses to these stressors over short- and long- time periods.
Written by: Darsy Smith & Lindsay Barranco
Destruction by crop insects requires strategies to combat pests below ground and above ground. Dr. Hiltpold’s novel approach uses nature to do this work.
Written by: Dylan Kutz & Serhat Solmaz
Our ecosystems are under siege by plants hailing from exotic realms. Can one of nature’s most ubiquitous insects be the key to saving protecting our native locales from invasion?
Written by: Jonathan Wang & Mike Nan
It’s no secret that the road to academia is tough. Faced with a “publish or perish” atmosphere and stagnant or declining rates of scientific funding, the academic route for a graduate student is daunting. A recent study suggests graduate students are six times more likely to experience depression and anxiety compared to the general population. Part of the problem is how hard it is to navigate a way into a tenure-track position. Thankfully, the problem is being recognized and a number of high-profile failure CVs have made waves online. Dr. Kimberly Wallin has her own advice to graduate students and reveals exactly “how the heck” she got here.
Written by: Veronica Yurchak & Anthony Nearman
Managing a crop pest means more than simply spraying fields with insecticides. What and when to spray, how much, and where to apply chemicals are all questions that any successful pest control must address. To further complicate things, the answers to those questions will change with any given pest. How then do we confront the vast number of pests plaguing our agricultural systems? Dr. Jim Miller believes he has an answer, and it begins with sex.
Written by: Zac Lamas and Graham Stewart
If you are traveling in New England and have ever passed an open meadow that isn’t being used for agriculture, you’re probably looking at an “old field” ecosystem. These are dense fields filled with a variety of flora- typically dominated by the early summer legumes trefoil and trillium, followed by the late season goldenrods and asters. While these fields are often overgrown, occasional mowing or controlled burning prevents succession to a forested state.
These old field ecosystems provide rich models for studying nutrient cycling. Rob Buchkowski, a PhD candidate from Yale, has spent his dissertation investigating “brown” (traditionally thought of as belowground) and “green” (traditionally thought of as aboveground) food webs, and how nutrition flows through and between these components of old field ecosystems. If you’re up for a bit of a ride, we’ll follow Rob through a bird’s eye view of the major principles of food chains, how nutrition moves through the system, and how we can mathematically model these systems
Hormone physiology and bacterial symbionts: Integrative approach to increasing understanding of vector development and reproduction
Written by: Arielle Arsenault-Benoit & Katie Reding
Vector development and reproduction are imperative to combating vector-borne illness. Dr. Kevin Vogel and his research team at the University of Georgia are employing an integrative approach to further understanding of these factors in mosquitoes and a triatomine kissing bug.
Written by: Maggie Lewis. Maggie is a second year PhD student in the Hamby lab who is currently studying the interactions between spotted wing drosophila and yeast and fungal microbes.
In agriculture, understanding an insect’s biology is a crucial aspect for developing and improving sustainable agricultural pest management programs. Knowledge of basic aspects of an insect’s life history, including its phenology, its behavioral ecology, and its interactions with the environment, provide clues that can help growers identify and exploit that pest’s weakness. Dr. Anne Nielsen, an associate professor in the Department of Entomology at Rutgers University, is currently studying how we can use this biologically based approach to improve management of Halyomorpha halys, more commonly known as the brown marmorated stink bug (BMSB).
Written by: Lisa Kuder, PhD student, vanEngelsdorp Lab & Kelly Kulhanek, PhD student, vanEngelsdorp Lab
Swarming, biting insects that shroud their victims in a seemingly inescapable cloud can certainly put a damper on outdoor activities. This is a common scenario in parts of the Mid-Atlantic Region situated near fast-moving rivers like the Potomac. In 2013, the public and economic impacts of biting insects moved residents from Washington County, Maryland to seek help from their state delegate and from UMD’s aquatic insect lab. The main culprit that locals tend to call “gnats” turned out to be black flies, Simulium jenningsi (Order: Diptera). In response to complaints about the nuisance fly, Becca Wilson-Ounekeo, a PhD candidate in UMD’s Entomology Department, set out to learn more about the biology, distribution, and public impact of the black fly. She soon embarked on research that would incorporate citizen-science and intensive field work.
Written by Elizabeth Brandt. Elizabeth Brandt is a M.S. student in Dr. David Hawthorne’s lab studying the detoxification gene pathways of the honey bee.
On an extremely wet Saturday in Annapolis, the UMD Entomology department gathered at the downtown offices of SESYNC for their annual Department Retreat. The retreat is designed for all members of the department to come together at the beginning of a new academic year to discuss the past year’s developments and accomplishments, and to synthesize a strategic plan for the coming year. Part of the retreat’s agenda includes a series of short research talks given by graduate students, postdocs, and faculty. For the 2018 retreat, the department welcomed two new faculty members, Dr. Karin Burghardt and Dr. Anahí Espíndola. Each gave a short talk about their research interests.
The gall wasp tree of life is overdue for a major overhaul. With the help of new genetic technologies and the hard work of Crystal Cooke (Dept. Entomology, University of Maryland), we have a better understanding of the relationships between gall wasp species and clades.
One of the greatest mysteries in the field of Evolutionary Biology surrounds the origins of unique morphological structures that have come into existence over evolutionary time. The work of Dr. Mark Rebeiz from the University of Pittsburgh seeks to molecularly characterize the evolutionary changes in developmental mechanisms that control morphology. Using species from the vinegar fly genus Drosophila, Dr. Rebeiz has been able to demonstrate that the emergence of divergent traits, studied through abdominal pigmentation and male genitalia models, are in part the result of changes in the activity of transcription factors and gene regulatory mechanisms during development, rather than the emergence of new genes alone.
Researchers are developing new genomic approaches to detect pathogens and their vectors. These new methods reduce cost, increase sensitivity, and may allow for early detection of new parasites.
Dr. John Cooley focuses his research on the periodical cicada, and uses decades of data to map emergences of this insect. Due to methodological limits and unpredictable environmental changes, historical maps may provide inaccurate information. Dr. Cooley’s current mapping projects based on modern techniques and a better understanding of biology and biogeography are providing new insight into old ideas regarding periodical cicada distribution and emergence dynamics.
Turfgrass landscapes are a major component of our beloved parks, sports fields, golf courses, and historical monuments. Dr. Joesph Roberts, an assistant professor at the University of Maryland, is currently investigating the microbial communities present on the turfgrass of the National Mall in Washington D.C.. Dr. Roberts' research is fighting to keep our beautiful landscapes looking like the "American dream" and not like an American wasteland.
Horseshoe crabs (Order: Xiphonsura) were once thought to be a relatively static, unchanging group of organisms. Dr. Lamsdell of the University of West Virginia, however, fundamentally changed the way we view horseshoe crabs through his paleotonoligcal research on their dynamic evolutionary history.
Since 2007, the US has ramped up biofuels production citing reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and decreased dependence on foreign oil as goals. While biofuels can have positive environmental impacts, the rapid increase in corn and soy acreage and intensity has had unintended consequences. As an AAAS fellow at EPA, Dr. Dilip Venugopal studies the impacts of biofuels standards programs.
Transgenic Bt crops have been a very successful tool for managing various insect pests in field crops. However, like all pest management strategies, they have both pros and cons. Dr. Dominic Reisig, from North Carolina State University, discusses the challenges of managing resistance against Bt crops, using the example of Helicoverpa zea, an important pest of both corn and cotton.
The mechanisms of exactly how mosquitoes locate their human hosts still elude the scientific community. Dr Conor McMeniman’s lab at Johns Hopkins has made advances in understanding the important role that the CO2 we exhale has to play in mosquitoes’ host-finding abilities. With the urgency of the Zika threat looming, understanding its mosquito vectors’ human-finding processes is vital to public health.
Annual emergences of chronomid (non-biting) midges at the subarctic Lake Myvatn in northeastern Iceland are being studied for their interesting effects on arthropod food webs. Understanding the aquatic-terrestrial linkages in the near-shore ecosystems will shed light on the role midges play in the nitrogen cycle.
Honey bees face a myriad of interacting stress factors including pesticide exposure and poor nutrition in intensive agricultural landscapes. Andrew Garavito spent his masters looking at how these factors interact in real-world landscapes to affect honey bee health. Comparing factors such as pollen diet, pesticide contamination of pollen, and drought stressing of pollen, he gained some interesting insights into what bees face on any given day in the field.