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Faculty Spotlight - Julie Urban

Posted: April 19, 2018

This is the 2nd of eleven short news articles written by students, during the professional development class. This year we had the students interview their advisor(s), in an effort to help them better understand the larger context of their projects.

The Smallest and the Mightiest: Using microbes to understand and control Spotted Lanternfly
By Mariam Taleb

A new invasive pest, the Spotted Lanternfly, is expanding its range in Pennsylvania. Most frighteningly, as they hop forth, forests and vineyards are blackening with thick crusty sooty mold that could harm plants by blocking photosynthesis. Because lanternflies feed on sugary plant sap, their excretions are also sugary, which is euphemistically called honeydew. Honeydew is a food source for microbes comprising sooty mold. As honeydew rains down on everything beneath lanternfly infested trees, sooty mold build-up can be seen to blacken trees, understory plants, and even homeowners' backyard furniture and decks.

Communities suffering from lanternfly infestations are searching for answers, and feeling overwhelmed by the enormity of the problem. At Penn State, scientists in Senior Research Associate Julie Urban’s lab know the real problem with any invasive insect can be a lot smaller, even microscopic. They are using molecular tools to identify the microbes that make up sooty mold, and to understand what makes this sooty mold so damaging. Ultimately, the microbes may reveal the secret to managing some of the damage lanternflies are causing.

Urban hopes that these molecular tools may lead to more targeted biocontrol strategies. Gene barcoding is a tool Urban's lab has been using to study lanternflies and their associated microbes, including microbes in sooty mold. These techniques read a region of the same gene from many living things at the same time. Variation in that clip in unique to each species of plant, animal, or microbe, helping to identify “who’s there”. Of the multitudes of microbial species found in sooty mold, the researchers are looking for which microbes are crucial to its formation. Identifying these microbes may give them the tools to knock out the most important players in sooty mold, thereby reducing this aspect of lanternfly impact without damaging other parts of the ecosystem.

It is vital to our economy and our ecology that researchers across the region think big to stop invasive insects like Spotted Lanternfly, and in this case, to combat sooty mold. But perhaps by thinking small -- well, that may just do the trick.