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Fall 2009
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Short Reports

Studying Tiny Insects, CALS Scientists Shed Light on Large Matters

By Isabel Lea Sterne ’10

At Cornell’s Daljit S. and Elaine Sarkaria Institute of Insect Physiology and Toxicology, researchers unlock the secrets of how insects work. Their discoveries about the physiology of insects and how they respond to toxins hold great promise for many scientific areas from sustainable agriculture to human health.

From left, entomologists Ping Wang, Jeff Scott, and Angela Douglas combine their expertise in insect research at the Sarkaria Institute of Insect Physiology and Toxicology.

From left, entomologists Ping Wang, Jeff Scott, and Angela Douglas combine their expertise in insect research at the Sarkaria Institute of Insect Physiology and Toxicology.

In 2008, renowned entomologist Angela Douglas joined the Sarkaria Institute, bringing her expertise in symbiosis research and nutritional physiology. Douglas, most recently a professor at the University of York in England, studies how some insects thrive on unbalanced diets. Her revolutionary work in insect nutrition demonstrates how aphids carry symbiotic bacteria that supply essential amino acids missing from their diet of plant sap.

“Her energy and intellect are so stimulating that the whole department has benefited by having her here,” says Jeff Scott, professor and chair of the Department of Entomology in Ithaca.

Douglas says the Sarkaria Institute and CALS’ superb reputation for insect science attracted her. “I am finding working at Cornell exhilarating, with so many excellent colleagues in the department and across the campus and the tremendous resources here for doing insect science,” says Douglas, the Daljit S. and Elaine Sarkaria Professor of Insect Physiology and Toxicology.

In 2002, Daljit S., PhD ’48, and Elaine Sarkaria established the institute with a significant gift as a center for fundamental research and student training that would serve as a forum for the advancement of insect physiology and toxicology. It is also meant to foster collaborations among scientists in many departments in addition to entomology.

Led by Douglas, Scott, and Ping Wang, PhD ’96, associate professor of entomology at the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station, Sarkaria Institute scientists apply the recent surge of available insect genomic information to develop solutions for pest management and environmental protection. They also use insects as models for studying human disease and climate change.

Each of the researchers contributes their particular expertise in insect physiology and toxicology. Wang focuses on the mid-gut, where insects digest their food and absorb nutrients, to understand how insects develop resistance to chemical pesticides.

Like Wang, Scott studies insecticide resistance, but from an evolutionary perspective. He hopes to find ways to slow “instant evolution,” in which agricultural pests and insects transmitting human disease rapidly develop pesticide tolerance, with the goal of developing sustainable pest control methods.

In each of these areas, the Sarkaria Institute is committed to training future entomologists and fostering collaboration among Cornell scientists and outside partners. Since 2007, the institute has hosted four graduate students supported by Sarkaria fellowships, as well as numerous undergraduate researchers. In addition, each fall it hosts the Patton Lecture, delivered by an esteemed insect physiologist or toxicologist. The Sarkarias sponsor the event in honor of the late Robert L. Patton, a CALS entomologist for nearly 40 years.