Golden Gate [X]press : Researchers abuzz for wasps as pesticides

In the biology department, an assistant professor sits in front of a continuous screen of green letters reminiscent of scenes from "The Matrix."

He is analyzing the gene sequences of wasps –wasps that are being used as an alternative to chemical pest controls in agriculture.

The wasp, Nasonia vitripennis, is being used as a form of chemical-free pest control "whose larvae parasitize various life stages of other arthropods such as insects, ticks and mites," according to a paper published Jan. 15 in "Science."

"In the 1950s, they didn’t know about these wasps, so they used chemicals," Christopher Smith, an SF State associate professor on the project, said. "Now, agriculture chemicals sterilize water systems and kill arthropods. Even household pesticides are a big problem –they reduce biodiversity in the ecosystem."

Parasitoids like the wasp are used nationally and are bred to attack pests that negatively affect agricultural crops.

"It’s where the frontier of science is at right now. When I was in grad school, there were no genomes," Smith said.

Smith is one of a team of researchers contributing to a larger study on the wasps. p>

His job is to receive the insect’s genome, then sequence and analyze the DNA he gets on the computer.

"I’m ecstatic. When I started out as an undergrad, I thought it was real neat what they were doing," graduate student in molecular biology, Henry Hunter, said.

"I know they’re going to find a bunch of different things with the Nasonias. There’s still a lot of room to find more about it," he said.

These "biocontrol agents," natural pest controls, are specialized to a specific species with nearly 600,000 variations occurring in nature.

The study looks at which parasitoid match up with which pest then breeds the parasitoid to control said pest.

Species use scent, taste and visual cues to match a host.

The research takes the wasp’s genome and manipulates its genes to find host-parasite recognition.

"Potentially we can find a natural variant that we don’t have to manipulate to do the same job –it’s just finding that wasp," Smith said.

But the chemical-free solution also has downsides, as was evidenced in Hawaii.

In 1883, Hawaii’s sugar cane plantation owners introduced the Indian mongoose to the island to control rats that were eating crops.

The plan was flawed –the rats were nocturnal, while the mongooses were diurnal.

Instead of the mongooses eliminating the rats, they lived together on the island, causing even more of a problem.

Introducing non-native species to the ecosystem is not uncommon and has caused many problems.

"The whole notion of chemical-free pest control would be marvelous," geographer and professor, Huia Richard Hutton said. "The intent is wonderful. The concern is: are we solving one issue and creating more?"

As a geographer, Hutton is concerned with looking at the "ripple effects or ramifications of our ecosystem."

Once the wasps are allowed into the ecology, "it’s a lot more dynamic –where are the checks and balances for that?"

"It’s about controlling the situation, but we have some work," Hutton said. "The environment is interdependent –the quest for human knowledge should be interdependent as well."

Hutton advocates bringing people together in different fields and sharing ideas and observations to have a useful outcome.

Currently, different insects such as lady beetles and lacewings are being distributed around the United States as a form of biological pest control.

Golden Gate [X]press : Researchers abuzz for wasps as pesticides

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