Just in time for Halloween …


  Wednesday, October 30, 2019
  Science & Technology, Research

By Maria Elena Hernandez

RIO GRANDE VALLEY, TEXAS – Looking for a good scare this Halloween?

You don't have to turn to haunted houses or scary movies. Nature offers more than enough to keep people on their toes, and professors at UTRGV are completely into the creepy crawlies that send most of us searching for the bug spray or cringing at the sight of them.

THE BLOODY TRUTH ABOUT MOSQUITOES

Dr. Christopher Vitek, an associate professor in the UTRGV Department of Biology, said we’re always close to the most dangerous animal on the planet.

This creature injects a little bit of saliva into its victims to suppress their immune system, while it takes what it wants – blood.

“All told, mosquitoes drain about 1.5 million gallons of blood from people in the United States every year,” Vitek said.

In the process, mosquitoes can spread deadly diseases viruses like West Nile and Zika.

“On a yearly basis, mosquitoes kill more people than sharks, than dogs, than bears and lions and snakes combined,” he said, “obviously, indirectly, through disease.”

UTRGV researchers are working to detect viruses in mosquitoes before they are spread to people.

“We could then use that as a warning system. We can increase our efforts to control those mosquitoes, to kill and spray them. We can also then issues warnings to the population,” Vitek said.

SCENT OF A KILLER

Mosquitoes aren't the only insects to suppress their victim’s immune system during an attack. Some wasps do that and go a step further.

“These tiny, tiny wasps, mostly in the family Braconidae, will fly in and lay eggs inside a caterpillar,” said Dr. Rupesh Kariyat, a UTRGV associate professor of biology.

“These are not like one or two eggs. Sometimes they are in the hundreds.”

The eggs can be seen hanging out of the caterpillar's body. Then the wasp larvae will eat the caterpillar from the inside out.

Slowly.

“They would not eat the vital organs,” Kariyat said. “They would eat the fat bodies and leave the vital organs. And they would keep the caterpillar alive until these larvae would actually pupate.”

The events that triggered such a torturous death may be surprising. For example, the caterpillar will be eating a plant. And the plant changes its smell.

“The plant changes its signature smell into something different, and that difference is basically the cry for help. It’s basically the 911 call to say, I have an intruder,” Kariyat said.

The wasp senses the smell and flies to the plant.

It’s these plant scents that Kariyat is researching.

“One of the major things that our lab is trying to understand is how insects talk to plants, how plants talk to insects, and how plants talk to other plants,” he said.

An important part of his work is identifying and synthesizing plant scents.

“We all know the harmful effects of synthetic chemicals and synthetic insecticides and weedicides,” he said. “What if we can design natural, product-based insecticides and pesticides using smells?”

THE KNOWN AND UNKNOWN

While research continues into the world of insects, what is known so far is already enough to unnerve some people. For example, there are caterpillars that can gain 500 times their body weight in just three weeks. Some can also feed on plastic.

“You have to understand that we humans are just one species. And for insects, we have more than a million species that we know so far,” Kariyat said. “Every year, we discover hundreds of new species of insects. We’re great, but we should also understand they are more successful than a lot of other organisms combined.”

And just maybe, being reminded that humans are outnumbered and the less successful species is enough of a scare for you this Halloween.


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ABOUT UTRGV

The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV) was created by the Texas Legislature in 2013 as the first major public university of the 21st century in Texas. This transformative initiative provided the opportunity to expand educational opportunities in the Rio Grande Valley, including a new School of Medicine, and made it possible for residents of the region to benefit from the Permanent University Fund – a public endowment contributing support to the University of Texas System and other institutions.

UTRGV has campuses and off-campus research and teaching sites throughout the Rio Grande Valley including in Boca Chica Beach, Brownsville (formerly The University of Texas at Brownsville campus), Edinburg (formerly The University of Texas-Pan American campus), Harlingen, McAllen, Port Isabel, Rio Grande City, and South Padre Island. UTRGV, a comprehensive academic institution, enrolled its first class in the fall of 2015, and the School of Medicine welcomed its first class in the summer of 2016.