Can sunflowers help beat the ‘insect apocal’

image: Sunflower pollen appears to be a superfood for pollinators. But why?
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Credit: Justin Roch

AMHERST, Mass. – An interdisciplinary team of researchers from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, led by Lynn Adler, professor of biology at UMass Amherst, has received $2.4 million from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to determine how food affects the ability pathogens to attack plant pollinators. The research will be the first to be conducted across a wide range of scales, from molecular to community scales, and has immediate implications for ecosystems, including agricultural efforts, worldwide.

One of the biggest challenges in biology today is understanding and managing how pathogens move and proliferate. Of particular concern is the way pathogens have affected and devastated plant pollinators – think of bees, for example, which have faced waves of mass mortality over the past decade, in part from pathogens. specific, in particular Crithidia bombi. Given that pollinating insects are responsible for ecosystem services estimated at more than $200 billion worldwide each year, their decline has caused serious concern, leading some to call the situation “the insect apocalypse”.

Yet biologists do not clearly understand the role plants play in the pathogen-pollinator interaction, nor is it clear what role the quantity and quality of food available to pollinators may play in the ability of pollinators to resist disease. While flowers provide essential food for pollinators, biologists often don’t consider how they can also be sites of disease transmission, or how the nectar and pollen themselves can help pollinators fight off disease.

“Our ultimate goal with this grant,” says Adler, “is to determine what type of plant composition, available as a food source for pollinators, reduces infection?”

Adler, who specializes in understanding plant-insect interactions, has previously shown that certain types of food can help pollinators resist disease. In particular, sunflower pollen appears to be a kind of superfood. But why?

To answer this question, Adler has assembled a multidisciplinary team of scientists – from ecologists to mathematical modellers, from molecular biologists to biochemists – whose expertise will open a window into how diet affects health with unprecedented comprehensiveness. For the first time, researchers will study the molecular, cellular, organismal, species and community interactions between foods, pollinators and pathogens.

At the same time, Adler and his colleagues will launch a training program for graduate students, as well as an after-school program tailored for middle school girls in underserved communities. The goal will be to help develop a diverse new generation of promising biologists and ecologists.

contacts: Lynn Adler, [email protected]

Daegan Miller, [email protected]

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