Battling Pests While Protecting Beneficial Bugs

Entomologist Bryony Bonning finds the range of insects stunning. “They span the complete range. You’ve got the repulsive ones and the beautiful ones, the useful ones and the pests,” she says.

Classical chemical insecticides are widely used for insect pest management, but a downside to this, Bonning says, is that they kill both the pests and the beneficial insects. That’s why she has devoted her work to developing alternative methods for pest control, like developing transgenic plants that are pest resistant, or infecting pests with viruses. She discovered her passion for biology at her family’s farm in the English countryside. She spent summer holidays fishing, catching insects and bird-watching at the farm in Derbyshire and credits her grandfather for influencing her interest and knowledge in nature. She earned her undergraduate degree in zoology at Durham University and was inspired by John H. Anstee to specialize in entomology.

It didn’t hurt that entomology is one sub-discipline of zoology that offers plenty of employment opportunities. “There is an ongoing need for entomologists. It’s good to know that as we train students,” Bonning says.

She was drawn to Iowa State in 1994, shortly after completing her doctoral degree from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine at the University of London. Much of her work is basic research, which she says “brings discoveries that make science exciting.” But her ultimate goal is applying the findings. The combined economic losses associated with insect pest damage and human health consequences associated with insect-vectored disease are astronomical.

She is currently working on two approaches to develop transgenic plants that resist aphid attack. One involves plants that produce toxins derived from the bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis, also known as Bt, that have been modi- fied to bind better to the aphid gut. In collaboration with W. Allen Miller (see page 7), plant pathology and microbiology, Bonning is working on another approach to deliver a neurotoxin by fusing it to a protein from the coating of a plant virus the aphids carry.

“If I’m able to retire and have some- thing that we developed actually used in the field, that would be the icing on the cake,” she says.

To that end, she is involved in a proposed collaboration with the world’s largest agricultural and insect pest control companies to discuss new research for managing pests, and to better align research conducted within academe with the needs of industry for practical solutions.

Bonning is working on a proposal with colleagues at the University of Kentucky that would create a center with industry members to streamline the development of insect pest management tools. Depending on the interest of companies to partici- pate and the  outcome of the proposal, the Center for Arthropod Management Technologies could start in the fall of 2013.

“The motivation behind this center is to collaborate with industry, so we can work together toward more effective pest management solutions for agricultural, structural and public health pests,” she says.