New institute to study behavioral plasticity in locusts

Multi-university collaboration funded by a 5-year, $12.5 million grant

Locusts in Yucatan, Mexico. (Texas A&M AgriLife photo courtesy of Hojun Song)

Locusts in Yucatan, Mexico. (Texas A&M AgriLife photo courtesy of Hojun Song)

by Olga Kuchment, Texas A&M AgriLife Marketing and Communications

Locusts have a reputation of biblical proportions. Certain species of grasshoppers that are typically solitary and harmless can suddenly swarm and consume entire crops, including plants that support livestock. Large swarms can destroy livelihoods for farmers and entire communities’ food supply.

That is why researchers from Texas A&M AgriLife, Baylor College of Medicine, Arizona State University, Washington University in St. Louis and University of California, Davis, have created the Behavioral Plasticity Research Institute, BPRI.

The institute will work to understand the mechanisms behind locust swarms and migration, and then use this knowledge to develop effective methods to limit the destruction the swarms can leave behind.

The cross-institutional, multi-disciplinary effort is led by Hojun Song, Ph.D., associate professor, and Spencer Behmer, Ph.D., professor, both in the Texas A&M College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Department of Entomology; Fabrizio Gabbiani, Ph.D., professor of neuroscience, and Herman Dierick, M.D., associate professor of molecular and human genetics, both at Baylor; and Arianne Cease, Ph.D., associate professor of sustainability and director of the Global Locust Initiative at Arizona State University.

The team with wide-ranging expertise also includes Gregory Sword, Ph.D., professor, Texas A&M Department of Entomology; Erez Lieberman, Ph.D., assistant professor, and Chenghang Zong, Ph.D., assistant professor, both at Baylor; Rick Overson, Ph.D., senior scientist, Arizona State; Stephen Richards, Ph.D., project scientist, Earth BioGenome Project, UC Davis; and Barani Raman, Ph.D., professor, Washington University.

The Behavioral Plasticity Research Institute

A $12.5 million, five-year National Science Foundation grant provides funding for the BPRI. The institute is one of four inaugural Biology Integration Institutes established by the NSF this year to work on broad problems in biology.

“Using cutting-edge technologies in research projects spanning from molecules to landscapes, the BPRI will greatly enhance our understanding of how grasshoppers transform into locusts – a phenomenon called locust phase polyphenism – and develop innovative solutions to manage locust plagues,” Gabbiani said. “With a commitment to improving diversity, inclusion and equity, the institute will train the next generation of integrative biologists who can efficiently navigate across disciplines to reach this goal.”

The institute will communicate groundbreaking research to the general public and the scientific community. By partnering with the Global Locust Initiative hosted at Arizona State, the institute plans to translate its scientific findings to real-world management with a goal of improving global food system sustainability.

Nature vs. nurture

The phenomenon BPRI will study, locust phase polyphenism, is a prime example of how distinct phenotypes can arise from environmental and other cues, rather than only genetic information. In the case of grasshopper species that are considered to be locusts, typically harmless insects can change their behavior in response to certain environmental and sensory cues to become a cohesive swarm.

The changes locusts undergo belong to a broad scientific concept known as phenotypic plasticity, the ability of organisms to change in response to their environment. Phenotypic plasticity is common in nature. But, to fully understand its mechanisms, maintenance and evolution, biological integration is needed, Song said. This work also illuminates how gene expression patterns and epigenetic regulation are linked to shifts in behavior, physiology and ecology that result in outbreaks, collective movement and mass migration.

So, the team expects this work to eventually lend itself to more than just insects. The information learned will help to understand how environment influences genetic makeup to shape behavior across all animals.

Global impact, local solutions

“Currently, when locusts outbreak, they can affect one in 10 people globally,” Behmer said. “The impact and the benefits to society that might come from this institute are pretty enormous.”

To better understand the scope of locusts’ impact, one must consider the situation of places affected by swarms, Sword said.

“When we have disasters in developed countries, we have mechanisms in place to get people support and relief they need,” Sword said. “But in a country dependent on small-holder subsistence agricultural operations, a locust swarm can literally take away a family’s entire source of income and food for the year.”

Hence, to gain a fuller understanding of the problem and provide individualized solutions, the institute will involve people with diverse backgrounds.

“Every step of the way, we will ask the question of whether we are being inclusive and hearing all the perspectives,” Song said. “We need to work across subdisciplines and try to get at the big picture rather than focusing on little slices. I believe that by bringing all these people together, within the next five or 10 years, we can make amazing changes.”

Ten integrative research projects

Researchers with the BPRI plan to carry out 10 integrative research activities. The projects will use three locust and three non-swarming grasshopper species with varying degrees of plasticity. The researchers will work with genomes, tissue-specific and time-resolved transcriptomes and epigenomes, as well as CRISPR/Cas9 and reverse genetics tools to understand the functional genetics of locust phase polyphenism, all considered within an evolutionary framework.

“We’ll be studying the factors that nudge individual locusts to join a larger group and the changes that follow,” Raman said. “Given the reports of massive, destructive locust swarms in many African and Asian countries this year, this is indeed a timely investigation of a well-reported, but not yet fully understood phenomenon.”

In essence, the institute will aim to solve problems humans have faced for thousands of years due to locusts, Song said.

“We’ve had the locust problem for millennia,” Song said. “But, we still struggle to control these pests. I believe that the discoveries made through the BPRI will fundamentally transform our understanding of why and how locusts swarm, which will ultimately translate into sustainable management practices.”

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