Student Research Spotlight - Yuhao Huang
Posted: August 12, 2015
Gut Microbes and Caterpillars: A Killer Combination?
by Carolyn Trietsch
In the war between insects and plants, some insects may have a secret weapon: gut microbes.
When plants are fed upon by an insect, they naturally defend themselves by releasing chemicals that harm the insect. However, some insects have developed means of countering these defense mechanisms. Ph.D. student Yuhao Huang studies such scenarios, investigating how plants respond to the insects that fed upon them, and how insects manage to avoid plant defense systems. Such work, he says, “may eventually help researchers breed plants that can better defend themselves rather than relying heavily on pesticides."
Huang focuses his research on the tomato fruitworm, Helicoverpa zea, which feeds on commercially valuable crops like tomatoes and corn. These caterpillars have microbes living inside their intestinal tracts that scientists still know little about.
Huang suspects that the gut microbes may help caterpillars thwart a plant’s natural chemical defenses. While plants produce toxins to poison the caterpillars, gut microbes living inside the caterpillars may help to disrupt the production of these toxins. This reduces the harm to caterpillars, allowing them to keep munching away on leaves. Huang’s goal will be to identify what gut microbes are present in tomato fruitworms and what roles they play in making the caterpillars such effective pests.
“By studying pests such as the tomato fruitworm, I hope to help figure out how insects are really interacting with plants,” Huang says. “Our findings may help shed light on new approaches for sustainable pest management.”