Reducing the impact of insects and viruses on food security

Men In Black

The Virus Insect Interactions group is developing solutions to reduce the impact of insects and viruses on food security for sustainable production of vegetables, fruits and farmed shrimp.         (l-r) Group members Matt O'Neal, Bryony Bonning and Allen Miller give a nod to Men In Black. Photo illustration by Bob Elbert.

Walk into an Iowa soybean field in June and listen. The sun is warm, the humidity is tolerable and it's quiet. But beneath the knee-high vegetative canopy, the serenity slips away. Soybean aphids, progeny of accidental escapees from Asia, are tapped into the plant's succulent stems, sucking in sugar-rich juices like poolside vacationers sipping Planter's Punch.

In 2000, the soybean aphid invasion was detected in North America. Since then, outbreaks of this invasive species have become commonplace, threatening U.S. soybean production -- a crop valued at more than $40 billion in 2011. Aphid outbreaks are inconsistent and unpredictable, but they continually threaten food security worldwide because of the plant diseases they spread.

Soybean aphids feed by piercing a plant's phloem, the vein-like sap transport system plants use for circulating nutrients to their near and distant parts. Feeding sessions rob the plant of the nutrients it needs to grow.

Additionally, every time an aphid taps a fresh phloem tube, viruses flow through the insect's probing needle-like mouth that draws sap as readily as it releases aphid backwash.

"Aphids are nature's flying dirty hypodermic needles," said Matt O'Neal, associate professor of entomology. "They will probe a plant lightly to see if they can survive on it and right there they can infect a plant and pick up new viruses."

What's at stake

Nearly 24 million acres of soybeans are grown in Iowa, Illinois, Michigan and Ohio, and mitigating aphid-related yield losses cost growers an estimated $1.6 billion over the past decade. Iowa soybean farmers alone spend close to $60 million each year to this end. Most of this money is spent on products called Warrior, Mustang Max, Baythroid or Lorsban and the fossil fuel used to spray these products on the crops. These topical broad-spectrum insecticides kill insects by paralyzing their nervous system. They are not target-specific so beneficial insects such as pollinators and natural predators of the aphid also die.

Pollinators are important. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has reported that annual honeybee pollination is responsible for $15 billion in added crop value. The honeybee and several hundred other bee species are native to North America. In 2011, O'Neal identified about 20 species living in central Iowa soybean fields. These native bees contribute about $3 billion per year to crop pollination, he said.

Insecticides carry a warning label stating time-of-day limits for application specifically to protect bees during their peak activity hours. To its credit, Iowa requires commercial applicators to steer clear of apiaries within a mile of pesticide application, and beekeepers must register with the state for this consideration.Nonetheless, environmental and human health impacts from insecticides remain unanswered. And, if the insecticide does not kill all the aphids, they simply move to neighboring fields, spreading the problem.

A team and a model to answer the threat

Bryony Bonning, professor of entomology, and Allen Miller, a molecular virologist and professor of plant pathology, have been developing a way for plants to resist both aphids and viruses to give plants and farmers a biology-driven insurance policy to protect against insect infestations and viral outbreaks. 

Bonning serves as principal investigator to an interdisciplinary team called the Virus Insect Interactions (VII) group that includes Miller and O'Neal. By attracting outside funding, VII is working to become a nationally recognized center for solving emerging threats to cropping systems.

The team includes plant pathologists, molecular virologists, entomologists, crop scientists, extension field specialists, social scientists and modelers. Their focus is on exploiting the strengths and weaknesses of insect-associated viruses to protect plants and beneficial insects, starting with soybean aphids.

Fifteen years in the making, Bonning and Miller's newly developed model plant expresses a viral coat protein fused to a toxin (from an Australian spider) in phloem cells. The plant uses the naturally customized coat protein like an address label and escort all in one to deliver the toxin to an aphid's gut as the insect sips phloem sap. Thus, the toxin and its courier hit only the target phloem feeder.

Just getting started

There are some 500 species of aphid native to North America and several thousand throughout the world, so successful strategies for controlling the soybean aphid will help efforts to control other aphid species and the viruses they spread.

"You can never really go to sleep on one method because insects are constantly evolving resistance," O'Neal said.

If the pest management methods being developed can be applied to other invasive species that attack Iowa, VII will have plenty of room for sequels and franchise opportunities.

Editor's note: Read Meg Gordon's full story about the VII team.

Wickert named senior vice president and provost

Wickert at forum

Wickert talks with those attending an April 23 open forum. Photo by Barb McBreen.

Jonathan Wickert, dean of the College of Engineering, has been tapped to become Iowa State's next senior vice president and provost.

President Steven Leath selected Wickert to become the chief academic officer following a national search. The appointment is subject to approval by the state Board of Regents.

Jonathan Wickert


Wickert will assume his new post July 30, and an interim will be appointed to lead the College of Engineering while a search is conducted for a new dean.

­"Jonathan Wickert has shown strong leadership and an innovative approach to issues facing the College of Engineering and the university as a whole," Leath said. "He’s the right person to lead a talented group of deans and other senior university officials in further advancing the quality of our academic programs."

Wickert has served as dean of the College of Engineering since 2009. He is the James and Katherine Melsa Professor of Engineering and a professor of mechanical engineering. He came to Iowa State in 2007 as chair of the department of mechanical engineering and the Larry and Pam Pithan Professor of Mechanical Engineering. Previously, he served 17 years on the mechanical engineering faculty at Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh.

His research has advanced the technology of high-density computer data storage and improved the design of automotive disk brakes, gas turbine blades and production equipment for sheet metal, polymer web and chopped fiber materials.

Provost plans

"I'm looking forward to working closely with president Leath and helping to implement his vision to advance Iowa State to the next level," Wickert said.

"In the coming weeks and months, you'll see me working closely with provost [Elizabeth] Hoffman on the transition and reaching out across campus to listen and learn more about all our academic, research and extension programs.

"With record enrollment and sponsored research, new faculty hiring and capital projects, and strong student retention and job placement rates, the Engineering college is well-positioned," Wickert added. "A process will begin immediately to identify an interim dean of engineering who will begin on July 30."

Wickert earned bachelor's (1985) and master's (1987) degrees and a doctorate (1989), all in mechanical engineering, at the University of California, Berkeley.

Wickert will succeed Hoffman, who announced in February that she intended to leave the provost position by year's end.

Laptops, video game design lab and 14 other tech projects receive funding

Loaner laptops, cameras to help veterinary students improve their client skills, a computer lab tailored for video game design -- these are some of the technological improvements that will be funded with $421,000 in student technology fees.

Every year, the Computation Advisory Committee (CAC), a group made up of faculty, staff and students across the university, determines how to spend a portion of the funds collected centrally through the student technology fee. The group looks for projects that broadly impact student computing and represent innovative use of information technology in instruction.

CAC recently completed its review of 2012-13 proposals, making awards to 16 projects. Three of the awards will fund:

  • 30 new laptops for a student laptop loan program, sponsored by CAC and Government of the Student Body. Approximately 100 laptops are available for free checkout through Information Technology Services, 1200 Communications Building. 
  • Installation of 10 video cameras in College of Veterinary Medicine medical exam rooms to record students interacting with clients who've brought their animals to the college. (Both students and clients will be aware of the cameras.) Evaluators will use the video to help students improve their client communications.
  • A new computer lab in 141 Pearson for use by students taking computer science courses in video game programming and design. It's anticipated the lab also will be used by College of Design students and other students who need access to equipment designed for intensive multimedia work.

CAC awards also will fund computer upgrades in a Heady Hall lab, loaner laptops with text-to-speech software, new residence hall wireless printers that are open to all students and a variety of other technological improvements around campus.  A complete list of projects is available online.

A day to celebrate


Photo by Bob Elbert.

George Belitsos (center) and Daniel Gianola (behind him), who received honorary degrees from Iowa State this spring, joined the procession at the undergraduate commencement ceremony May 5 at Hilton.

Belitsos, CEO of Ames-based Youth and Shelter Services, was recognized for service to Iowa teens and families. Gianola, professor of animal science, dairy science and biostatistics at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, was honored for his contributions to the field of animal genetics.

More than 3,000 students completed their Iowa State bachelor's degrees last week; in his address to them, State Board of Regents president Craig Lang encouraged them to be patient and to be open to possibilities other than their current plans.

Child protection is focus of recent policies

University counsel Paul Tanaka presented an overview of campus child protection initiatives at the May 3 Professional and Scientific Council meeting. Tanaka highlighted Iowa State's policies both prior to and following the child sexual abuse scandal involving former Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky and his children's charity (The Second Mile).

"I'd say we're in pretty good shape," Tanaka said. "I believe we're better off than any other higher education institution in this state."

Tanaka listed several measures already in place prior to the Sandusky indictment last November, including:

  • 4-H background screenings since 1997
  • A reporting responsibility policy adopted in 2005
  • A violence-free campus policy adopted in 2007
  • An employment verification background check policy adopted in 2009
  • A "children in the workplace" policy adopted in 2009

Tanaka said the Iowa Legislature passed reporting requirements for institutions of higher education this year. The statute deals with reporting physical and sexual abuse, not all child abuse (such as neglect and psychological), which is covered by trained mandatory reporters.

A task force has been coordinating a review of ISU policies to meet the legislative requirements, including continued work on previously initiated policies. Three policies currently are in development, including:

"Essentially, what we have done for the reporting piece is that if you are aware of physical or sexual abuse of a child, report it to the police. It's that simple," Tanaka said.

Dining sites adjust hours for summer

Smaller student and employee numbers on campus this summer mean revised schedules at many ISU Dining locales. A week-by-week schedule for all locations is online. Inside provides this summary of some of the key weekday changes:

Locations closed for the summer:

  • Oak-Elm dining center
  • Knapp-Storms dining center
  • Business Café
  • Design Café
  • Clyde's Sports Club in the Union Drive Community Center (UDCC)
  • Wallace-Wilson C-store
  • The Seasons dining center in the Maple-Willow-Larch commons will be closed except when large conference groups are assigned to MWL.

Changes to service hours:

  • Bookends Café in Parks Library: 7:30 a.m.-7 p.m. (early close during the week, with no weekend hours)
  • Caribou Coffee in The Hub: 7 a.m.-4 p.m. (early close)
  • Courtyard Café in Lagomarcino: 7:30 a.m.-3 p.m. (early close)
  • Hawthorn Market and Café: 7 a.m.-1:30 p.m. (early close) 
  • Hub Grill and Café: 10:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m. (open only for lunch)
  • Memorial Union food court
    •  ISU Dining sites close at 2 p.m.
    •  Panda Express and Subway set their own hours
  • MU Market and Café: 7 a.m.-5 p.m. (early close)
  • UDCC C-store: 7:30 a.m.-3 p.m. (early close)
  • Froots in State Gym: 1-6 p.m. (no morning or evening hours)

Several roads and parking lots will close for Special Olympics May 17-19

Iowa State is the host site for the Iowa Special Olympics Summer Games Thursday through Saturday, May 17-19. Numerous recreation facilities across campus will serve as sports venues, impacting roads and parking lots in several areas. Iowa State employees are asked to accommodate these temporary changes:

Road closures:

  • Beach Road: Closed to through traffic from Lincoln Way to Wallace Road Thursday and Friday (8 a.m.-10 p.m. daily) 

  • South Fourth Street: Closed from Beach Avenue to just west of entrance to stadium parking lots on Thursday (8 a.m.-5 p.m.) for bike race events. 

Parking lot changes:

  • Iowa State Center lots, Thursday (12:01 a.m.-5 p.m.): All lots will be closed for bike race events. Commuter parking will move to the stadium parking lots for Thursday and Friday, and CyRide will be routed through lots S3-S8.
  • Lot 3 (north side of Beyer Hall), Friday (all day): Open to Lot 3 24-hour Reserve, Special Olympics or handicap permit holders. 

  • Lots 57 and 100 (west and south sides of Lied Center), Thursday and Friday (all day): Open to Lot 57 Reserve or Special Olympics permit holders. 

  • Lot 50A (west side of Forker Building), Thursday and Friday (all day): Open to Special Olympics or handicap permit holders.
  • Richardson Court residence area (all parking stalls), Thursday and Friday (all day): Open to Special Olympics or handicap permit holders.