Student Research Spotlight - Kyle Burks

Posted: October 3, 2014

This is the 9th of twelve short news articles written by students, during the professional development class, about each other's research.

Parasitic Wasps: The New Green Insecticide?
by Kevin Cloonan

As sustainable agriculture increases in popularity, so too does the demand for more "green" methods of controlling insect pests. One viable alternative of using traditional insecticides to kill pestiferous agricultural insects is the use of tiny parasitic wasps.

Enter Kyle Burks, a PhD student at The Pennsylvania State University training in systematics, or classifying organisms in an ordered system, and currently working with wasps in the family Proctotrupidae for his dissertation research. "Wasps in this family are excellent candidates for agricultural application," said Burks.

These small wasps pierce the "skin" and lay their eggs inside the body of other insect hosts. The wasp larvae then feed on their insides, boring out as adults and ultimately killing their host.

However, "this is a relatively large and unstudied group of insects, and many unknown wasps are simply placed with this family," said Burks. This means that there could potentially be a lot of wasps within this family that shouldn't be there, and other unknown species that should be there.

Burks, with the assistance of his academic advisor Dr. Andy Deans, plans to sort through thousands of field collected wasps looking at both the DNA and physical characteristics to determine which deem a wasp "Proctotrupidae." Burks hopes to separate many of the wasps currently within this family into new or existing families of wasps and incorporate new wasps into this family.

Far gone are the days of creaky old scientists locked in basement laboratories looking at dead insects on pins. These days systematists use high powered lasers able to cut insects into paper-thin slices, microscopes using electron beams, and next generation DNA sequencing technologies to examine specimens.

Burks' work may also allow scientists to ask some more fundamental questions about biology and ecology. "By looking at small and precise details of wasps we are able to infer a lot about how these organisms evolved," said Burks.