CAREER: Deciphering Mechanisms Underlying Chemical Adaptation in Insects

Project: Research project

Project Details


This award is funded in whole or in part under the American Rescue Act of 2021 (Public Law 117-2).

The 'arms race' between plants and insects has driven their coevolution for hundreds of millions of years. Once damaged by herbivores, plants release induced volatile organic compounds called herbivore-induced plant volatiles (HIPVs). It has been well documented that HIPVs play fundamental roles in insect-plant interactions, but knowledge of how herbivores adjust and adapt to plant HIPVs remains largely absent. The research objective of this CAREER proposal is to understand the mechanisms underlying herbivores' adaptation to plant HIPVs, attempting to link insect olfaction with evolutionary resilience to pesticides, using the herbivorous Colorado potato beetle and its host plant, potato, as a study system. A key innovation in this project is that it will uncover previously uncharacterized mechanisms of insect-plant interactions and evolution of pesticide resistance. The interdisciplinary nature of this project provides a unique educational platform for students from diverse backgrounds, especially underrepresented groups. Three educational goals of the project are to: (1) develop an innovative, hands-on experiment-based course that includes modern molecular techniques; (2) engage underrepresented students from high schools and undergraduates at Penn State in insect science research through an existing EnvironMentors program; and (3) develop and deliver the 'Bugs Win' multigenerational family program at the Pasto Agricultural Museum to interest youth and their families in science. These educational activities will expose larger and more diverse groups to insect science and should make basic research more inclusive.

Despite the known roles of HIPVs in insect-plant interactions, it remains unclear which mechanisms assist insects in adapting to these volatile compounds. The enzymes involved in rapid antennal sensory processing of HIPVs may be co-opted by other processes such as xenobiotic detoxification. To test this hypothesis, research is designed to integrate powerful structural biology, functional genomics, enzymology, and insect behavior approaches to functionally dissect and understand the roles of enzymes in insect olfaction and detoxification pathways. In addition, the integrated education program will ensure active learning outcomes, engage students in Entomology and Biology research, enhance students' critical thinking and problem-solving skills, and prepare the next generation of young scientists with advanced tools and techniques along with fundamental knowledge. This work will significantly enhance our understanding of physiological mechanisms of insect-plant interactions and of xenobiotic adaptation in insects. Completion of this project may ultimately contribute to the development of resistance-free pesticides for precision pest control and beneficial insect conservation.

This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.

Effective start/end date2/1/221/31/27


  • National Science Foundation: $428,055.00


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