University of Wyoming Extension News

UW grasshopper expert receives prestigious visiting research fellowship

An entomologist in the University of Wyoming’s College of Agriculture has been awarded a University of Sydney International Visiting Research Fellowship to study the effects of fungal infections on locust behavior in Australia.

The fellowship provides $20,000 (Australian) and covers the roundtrip airfare and living allowance for 12 weeks. The fellowship will allow Alexandre Latchininsky, an associate professor in the Department of Renewable Resources and UW extension entomologist, to conduct locust research in Australia this fall collaborating with renowned colleagues from the University of Sydney’s School of Biological Sciences, Gregory Sword and Steve Simpson. Information about new research by Sword, Simpson and colleagues, which has shed light on the adaptive significance of swarming behavior in locusts, is available at www.bio.usyd.edu.au/. The work was published in Current Biology and Nature.

“The International Visiting Research Fellowship at the University of Sydney provides an exciting opportunity to do research, the results of which will be mutually beneficial for Australian and North American growers and far beyond,” said Latchininsky.

Latchininsky, who is president of the U.S. National Grasshopper Management Board and an international consultant on locusts for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, said Australia is the world leader in the theory and practice of locust biological control.

The research strategy uses an indigenous isolate of the fungal pathogen Metarhizium anisopliae var. acridum. The biological insecticide based on this fungus is called Green Guard. It represents a suspension of fungal spores in vegetable oil and is successfully applied to vast rangeland areas against the Australian plague locust.

“Application of Green Guard ensures efficient and ecologically safe crop protection from locusts,” said Latchininsky. “It is the only product authorized for use in organically grown cattle and crops. Organic produce is an ever-growing sector of agricultural production in Australia intended primarily for export to the U.S., Europe and Japan.”

To improve the Green Guard efficacy, Latchininsky seeks to address:

* Whether locusts show an enhanced immune response when crowded, which could protect them against fungal attack;

* How a fungal attack influences the rate of cannibalism and patterns of individual movement and mass marching in locusts; and

* Whether the existing mathematical models and computer simulations of migratory band movements can be extended in relation to the application of the fungal pathogen.

The proposed research in Australia is directly linked to ongoing studies in Wyoming that investigate the effectiveness of the North American strain of the same fungal pathogen, said Latchininsky. The project is a joint effort of Latchininsky’s research group at the University of Wyoming, Utah State University and U.S. Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service Northern Plains Agricultural Research Laboratory in Sidney, Mont.

“Findings of the Australian project will be instrumental in developing the integrated pest management strategy of biological control of grasshoppers in North America based on local strains of fungal pathogens,” he said.

Several pathogens have been tried around the world as potential candidates for microbiological control of locusts and grasshoppers, but, due to different reasons, none succeeded.

Metarhizium anisopliae var. acridum appears to represent a real breakthrough; it is very selective (kills only grasshoppers and locusts and does not harm other insects), acts rapidly (in few days) and is easy to mass cultivate in rearing facilities,” noted Latchininsky. “It is cost-effective and competitive with synthetic chemical insecticides. Its worldwide use would help to shift locust and grasshopper control from reactive into a preventive mode. Nowadays, locust control relies essentially on blanket applications of broad-spectrum insecticides.”

To curtail a Desert locust outbreak in 2003-2005 that affected livelihoods of eight million people in Africa, 32 million acres (approximately an area the size of the state of New York) were treated with insecticides in 26 countries. The cost of the campaign, including the food aid to affected populations, amounted to half a billion U.S. dollars in addition to the adverse impact of chemical poisons to the environment.

“The development of an economically and environmentally viable means of crop and rangeland protection from locusts and grasshoppers is essential today, when food prices are soaring worldwide,” said Latchininsky.

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