Stories from Inside and Insect’s Gut
By Polly Goss
A caterpillar crawls across the sidewalk. It squirms on the hot concrete as a shoe descends on the insect, forcing its guts out of its body. Although the students in the Insect Viruses, Molecular Biology and Biotechnology Creative Inquiry do not crush caterpillars with their shoes, they are interested in how caterpillar guts can explain processes in insect bodies, as well as in ours.
Mentored by Dr. Matthew Turnbull from the Departments of Biological Sciences and Plant and Environmental Sciences, the Creative Inquiry team is studying various aspects of caterpillar development and physiology. The Creative Inquiry project consists of several different student–driven projects, but each piece of the research addresses the theme of the laboratory — studying life at the smallest level, in this case insect physiology and molecular biology, and translating it to the rest of the world.
“They are using insects to ask fundamental questions about life,” Turnbull said. Bioelectric patterns have been found to regulate stem cell activity in a wide range of life, from plants to flatworms to humans. While they study these fundamental processes, they also begin to understand the broader impacts of their work. As the team draws conclusions, they realize their work sometimes finds ways to end insect lives, potentially save human lives or explain patterns of animal diversity.
As a pest that attacks many agricultural crops, the budworm is also known for its resistance to most insecticides. Any reduction of the caterpillar’s ability to repair or resist damage from insecticides could be greatly beneficial to agricultural concerns. Due to physiological similarities between caterpillar and human gut growth and regeneration, the students’ conclusions could also shed light on human gastrointestinal cancers by helping medical researchers and professionals to better understand gut biology. Whether they are destroying tobacco budworms or helping to identify patterns that could shed light on cancers of the human gastrointestinal system, the team is dedicated to discovering and manipulating patterns and processes that explain fundamental regulators of life.
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Barbara J. Speziale