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March 3, 2021

Small organisms, epic possibilities

Spartan entomologists use the tiny world of insects to unlock big discoveries

Some very small organisms in our ecosystem hold big clues to problems that affect our health, our food and our environment.

Michigan State University researchers don their masks, and sometimes waders, in their efforts to battle invasive species, find sustainable solutions to malnutrition and to identify pathogens that could cause the next pandemic.

Fighting infectious diseases  

MSU researcher Eric Benbow studies insects in lakes, ponds and streams to understand their role in the dispersal of pathogens that can spread to humans and wildlife and cause disease.

Benbow and his team are using a $2.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation to study Mycobacterium ulcerans, a pathogen that causes the infectious disease known as Buruli ulcer, which flourishes in tropical regions. Appointed in both the Department of Entomology and the Department of Osteopathic Medical Specialties, Benbow is uniquely positioned to examine the intersection of wildlife and humans in spreading disease. 

Feeding the world  

Better animal diets may lead to healthier humans, especially children. Researcher Jennifer Pechal is working with farmers in several African countries on a sustainable solution for malnutrition by feeding highly nutritious flies to animals the farmers raise for market or their own use.

As an assistant professor of entomology at MSU, Pechal and her colleagues are working to optimize the diets of black soldier flies at the larval stage to then increase protein in the diets of animals who feed on them, and ultimately, improve human nutrition.

Controlling invasive species  

The best means for controlling invasive species may be crawling under our noses. Researcher Marianna Szucs and colleagues in her lab are using natural enemies to manage invasive plant species that often overtake native and beneficial plants and can be toxic to animals. The team is deploying a moth whose larvae feed on the foliage of invasive swallow-wort vines on MSU’s campus and elsewhere in Michigan.

Szucs also is active in the fight against the brown marmorated stinkbug, which uses its piercing mouth to extract juices from fruits, seed pods and nuts on numerous wild and cultivated plants. Her lab discovered an exotic parasitoid in Michigan that has a high attack rate on brown marmorated stinkbugs.

Adapted from stories and videos from the latest issue of Futures.

Top photo courtesy of Johnny N. Dell,