Student Research Spotlight - Po-An Lin
Posted: August 5, 2016
Research Spotlight: A Very Hungry (and Strategic) Caterpillar
by Kirsten Pearsons
A caterpillar munching away on your prize tomatoes may be an unwelcomed sight, but to Penn State Ph.D. student Po-An Lin, it’s a chance to dive into the arms race between plants and insects.
Plant-insect interactions first piqued Lin’s interest when he was in high school. “I went to an all-boys school in Taiwan, and while the other students would spend their afternoons playing video games, I would go up to the mountains to collect butterflies.”
While beautiful butterflies still catch his eye, Lin says his time collecting sparked his interest in the unique interactions between butterflies and their host plants. Since plants can’t run away or hide, they often produce toxic chemicals to fend off caterpillars. Lin remarks, however, “a hungry caterpillar isn’t going down without a fight.” The way caterpillars feed (what parts of the plants they eat, how long they feed at one spot) is one strategy they use to fight their food's defense system. Specific feeding-behaviors may give caterpillars an advantage if they can lengthen the time it takes for plants to raise their toxic defenses.
With this plant-caterpillar arms race in mind, Lin joined the Felton Lab in Penn State’s Department of Entomology. As a graduate student, Lin is starting research on the interaction between tomato-plant defenses and caterpillar feeding-behavior. By restricting caterpillar feeding (how long they chew and over what leaf area), Lin plans to pinpoint the behaviors that affect the time it takes for the tomato plants to fight back.
Plants and caterpillars have been duking it out for millions of years, and Lin is excited that his research will allow him to peek into this long history. Comparing humans to caterpillars, he notes, “It’s like how Americans eat with forks, but back home in Taiwan we use chopsticks.” Our ancient interactions with food -- cooking methods and the availability of certain ingredients -- have left a fingerprint on how we eat today. The same could be true for hungry caterpillars.
While Lin is interested in looking into the past, he is also hopeful for the future. Lin’s research will help agronomists select crop varieties that are better at fending off pest insects. So the next time you see a caterpillar grazing on your tomatoes you may not have to worry – the tomatoes may be fighting back.