All photos courtesy Monica Blanco (top image) & Amanda Perez-Castro
by Amanda Perez-Castro
edited by Daniel Abbott
In a life full of uncertainties, there is one thing for certain: change. Aside from change, another aspect of life is the absolute necessity for a food source in order to survive and thrive. Humans have always needed food, but the means by which this nourishment is earned has evolved greatly throughout millenia. The idea of using primitive weapons in hunter gatherer societies may seem far gone. Agrarian societies, focused on cultivating large amounts of vegetation, still exist today. The most modern form of producing food involves the genetic manipulation of our food’s DNA in sterile laboratories. From loincloth to lab coat, the human journey to procure sustenance has been humanity’s eternal endeavour.
Agricultural science allows humans to develop strategies to tackle the challenges nature presents to us. Entomology, a branch of zoology which is concerned with the study of insects, is shaping the way we feed the future through a collaborative, cross-discipline effort. This effort takes into account the variables at hand today, as well as the impact of our actions on future generations. Some of the challenges faced by agricultural scientists include the Earth’s changing climate, and it’s rapidly growing population.
The United Nations expects the Earth’s population to reach 9.8 billion in the next 30 years. Plant geneticists are storing germ plasm, the tissue from which living plants can be grown. They are also collecting fruit data at various research stations across the country. Entomologists in the United States are targeting pest-specific attractants and repellents for the encroaching ambrosia beetle, while simultaneously preparing for a potential invasion by Bactrocera Dorsalis, commonly known as the Oriental fruit fly.
Entomologists for the United States Department of Agriculture state that “invasive insect pests and the pathogens they vector are a chronic concern for human, animal, and plant health  worldwide”. A current threat is posed on our sacred Persea Americana: the avocado tree.
Avocado trees are being invaded by the exotic redbay ambrosia beetle. Typically, the native ambrosia beetle is important for nutrient-cycling in forests, as it accelerates the decay of dying  trees. Upon closer examination, scientists discovered a fungus on the backs of the redbay ambrosia beetle. This fungus causes a disease in avocado trees known as “laurel wilt.” The spread is analogous, in essence, to the way in which the fleas on rats were the underlying culprit of the bubonic plague in the Late Middle Ages. Since the arrival of the redbay ambrosia beetle in 2011, Miami-Dade county has lost over 120,000 avocado trees. Generally, the native ambrosia beetles only conquer dead and decaying trees. The exotic redbay ambrosia beetle, as of late, is actively attacking healthy avocado trees. Conversely, native ambrosia beetles play a vital and beneficial role in expediting the decay of dead trees, which is necessary for nutrient cycling. Similar dilemmas involve exotic fruit flies infesting our favorite fruits, deeming them unmarketable and inedible.
These dilemmas call forth the cross-collaboration between various scientists. Entomologists and chemists work together to develop insect specific attractants and repellents, which in turn, contribute to more sustainable farming practices. The method by which they test these ideas is quite fascinating. One method involves performing an Electroantennography (also known by the acronym “EAG”), which involves the measurement “of the output of an insect  antenna to its brain for a given odor”. This sort of test has two prerequisites; one requirement is a steady hand, and the other is a freshly beheaded insect. An interesting and grotesque fact: some insect’s heads can stay active for one hour after decapitation.
Plant geneticists are also trying to discover which mango has the most appealing taste, but also has superior fungal resistance. By grafting it onto a rootstock that can handle the soils of a particular region and climate, we can develop and propagate strengthened mangoes. Years of data collection involving fruit size, weight, sugar content, flavor, seed weight are essential to this task. The phenotypic fruit data collection requires details all the way down to the core, and no seed goes unmeasured.
Next time you bite into a store-bought fruit, try to determine whether or not you can taste all of the brilliant science that went into the production of marketable produce.
“World Population Projected to Reach 9.8 Billion in 2050, and 11.2 Billion in 2100 | UN DESA Department of Economic and Social Affairs,” United Nations (UnitedNations,2017),https://www.un.org/development/desa/en/news/population/world-population-pros pects-2017.html
Gary J. Steck et al., “Oriental Fruit Fly Eradication in Florida,” American Entomologist 65, no. 2 (2015).
Rajinder Mann et al., “Featured Creatures,” Redbay ambrosia beetle - Xyleborus glabratus Eichhoff, April 2011,http://entnemdept.ufl.edu/creatures/trees/beetles/redbay_ambrosia_beetle.htm
IFAS Communications, “Laurel Wilt - a Disease Impacting Avocados,” Laurel Wilt - a Disease Impacting Avocados - UF/IFAS Extension, accessed July 27, 2020, https://sfyl.ifas.ufl.edu/miami-dade/agriculture/laurel-wilt---a-disease-impacting-avocado s/
“Electroantennography,” Wikipedia (Wikimedia Foundation, August 5, 2019),