NE1501: Harnessing Chemical Ecology to Address Agricultural Pest and Pollinator Priorities

(Multistate Research Project)

Status: Active


The need, as indicated by stakeholders:
Agricultural crops are valuable to the culture, economy and future of the Northeast. For example, the total value of principal crops in the Northeast was > $5.32 billion and Northeast vegetable growers harvested over 133,000 acres with a value more than $700 million. New York alone ranked 5th in the nation for vegetable production and garnered $323 million from fruit, berry and grape production (NASS 2013). Our region has numerous large cities that import food; thus, a robust regional agricultural productivity is essential for food security for these population centers.

While the value of agriculture to the Northeast is indisputable, our agricultural systems mostly remain reliant on pesticides to ensure profit. On behalf of stakeholders, the Northeast IPM Center states that they 'are enthusiastic about alternative, non-pesticidal strategies that unite several disciplines and lead to sustainable solutions'. Northeast regional priorities for fruit, vegetable and specialty crops are replete with calls for research and sustainable practices to reduce the impacts of insect pests and to protect valuable pollinators. Organic agriculture continues to grow in both demand and production and is particularly reliant on developing holistic, ecology-based systems.

Proposed objectives:

  1. Develop chemical ecology tools and information to support sustainable agriculture by reducing damage by pests in crops such as potatoes, brassicas, cucurbits, apples, blueberries, and sweet corn, while maintaining pollinator health in agricultural systems.

  2. Define variability of chemically mediated interactions between pests, crops, and beneficial organisms in terms of plant chemistry, species interactions and landscape factors in the Northeast.

  3. Characterize the non-target effects of pesticides on pollinators, herbivores and natural enemies of pests.

  4. Assess the impact of domestication on plant and animal chemical ecology in agricultural fields and identify unifying patterns of human and natural selection on chemical interactions of crop plants.

  5. Establish a chemical ecology analytical facility for the Northeast to allow researchers ready access to equipment and technical expertise.

  6. Extension to facilitate adoption and awareness of science-based chemical ecology tools to support sustainable production.

The importance of the work, and what the consequences are if it is not done:
Generally, researchers of diverse disciplines converge upon a particular crop or target pest rather than developing management models that cut across a broad range of crops and pests. We propose the reverse, to harness the intellectual breadth of chemical ecology practitioners and to focus their interests on agricultural pests and pollinators.

As the discipline of chemical ecology matures, knowledge gained in ecological, behavioral and evolutionary studies can be translated into practical and applied pest management. Thus, blending fundamental and applied research enhances the likelihood of sustainable pest management and a reduction in the quantity of pesticides released into our environment. The consequence of not pursuing sustainable, non-pesticidal management of pests is a continued reliance on insecticides and other pesticides, with potential long and short term adverse effects on our environment for future generations.

The technical feasibility of the research:
The field of chemical ecology originated nearly 50 years ago with the identification of an insect sex pheromone. That work engendered the applied practice of pheromone mating disruption and pheromone trapping to inform IPM decisions. Since then, it has become increasingly apparent that insect pests, natural enemies of pests, and pollinators respond to a complex set of chemical signals in their environment. Basic understanding of the signals that govern their interplay, especially those emitted by crop plants, will lead to the development of practical and economic tools to suppress agricultural pests and enhance pollination. Other concrete examples of applied chemical ecology are the development of non-bitter cucumbers to reduce attraction by striped cucumber beetles, the finding that pheromone monitoring can be made more effective by the addition of specific host plant volatiles and the employment of a ‘push-pull’ approach to stem borers in African maize.

Thus, we are confident of technical feasibility and fruitful knowledge as the discipline matures and as we begin to elucidate the roles of plant genetics, gene expression, and metabolic pathways that control chemical signaling among plants, pests, natural enemies and pollinators.

The advantages for doing the work as a multistate effort:
The field of chemical ecology is well represented in various land grant universities within the Northeast and while there are pest problems that are unique to the Northeast, there can be substantial overlap in pest guilds within the areas comprising the region. There is tremendous potential for unifying the various researchers within the region to address agricultural problems and there is a clear advantage to fostering a multi-state effort. We have already begun to assemble a team of researchers and recently hosted a NERA Planning Conference (Northeastern Regional Association of State Experiment Station Directors) with the express purpose of bringing together researchers from the Northeast to discuss the application of chemical ecology to agricultural pest and pollinator problems. A multistate approach would continue to provide opportunities for expedited communication and cooperation while also focusing the attention of fundamental and basic researchers on applied problems in agriculture. Additionally, several of the major crops and pests have different phenologies in different states in the region; accordingly, multi-state perspective will allow for a more comprehensive approach to understanding pest issues, especially as they may be altered by climate change.

Analytical instrumentation is increasingly a limitation for academic researchers. The equipment is expensive to purchase and maintain and requires a skilled operator which results in both high initial and per sample costs. Given the inherent similarities of many of the volatiles, pheromones, pesticides or other metabolites that would be commonly measured by chemical ecology researchers in the Northeast, a central facility would be an efficient way to enable research. It would also improve coordination among researchers by creating standard, shared methodologies that would be implemented with a single set of equipment.

What the likely impacts will be from successfully completing the work:
Chemical ecology can be defined as the study of the structure, origin and function of naturally occurring chemicals that mediate intraspecific or interspecific interactions. When applied to agricultural pests, the discipline of chemical ecology will lead to elucidating how the ubiquitous chemical signaling among pest species and their hosts can be exploited to control pests. For instance, crop breeding and selection have been cornerstones of successful agriculture for millennia; with powerful new genetic tools and new understanding of the chemical signals controlling pest behavior, we will have the opportunity to expedite plant breeding for resistance. Other likely impacts will be the ability to exploit pest behavior to our favor by targeting the communication systems upon which they depend.

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