Insect Perceptions, Irrelevant or Important

February 23, 2016

“IT WAS THE BUTTERFLIES, my people say, who brought the first human babies to their feet,” writes Canadian Richard Wagamese in “Butterflies Teachings,” an essay touching on “what’s called Enendamowin, or Ojibway worldview” in his brilliant collection, One Native Life. “Before that, the New Ones sat in innocence beneath a tree, watching the world around them with wonder. But Creator had planned more for them. Their destiny called for them to move throughout the world. These human babies were meant to walk upon their two legs, and as long as they sat under that tree their destiny could not be fulfilled…The air seemed to tremble with butterflies. The human babies were entranced. Each time they tried to snare a handful of colour, the cloud drifted away. They stretched their arms higher. They thrust out their hands. But it was to no avail. When the butterflies danced just out of reach a final time, the New Ones lurched to their feet and raced after them across the meadow. The Animal People celebrated quietly, then returned to their dens and burrows and nests. The human babies never caught those butterflies, but they kept on running, right into the face of their destiny…”

Quite a different worldview from Prague and Eastern Europe, where Franz Kafka’s famous novel Metamorphosis begins: “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.” According to the “wall notes” in the exhibit “Disguise: Masks & Global African Art” at the Fowler Museum at UCLA, Kafka’s words inspired South Africa artist Walter Oltmann. Among neon masks, dancing mask videos and sculptured African animals wearing masks are Oltmann’s large anodized aluminum and brass wire caterpillars in the midst of “transformation and change” (metamorphosis) and fashion sketches titled “Beetles & Suits.” The suit coats are gracefully curving, shell-like beetle elytra (outer wing covers) fashionably topped off with the latest antennae, and looking both business-like and sci-fi out of Star Wars or Star Trek at the same time. I can easily imagine a cell phone age makeover of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band regalia and long hair with “beetle suits” and high-fashion antennae. Perhaps too much entomology affects the psyche. Oltmann writes that “spending an inordinate amount of time on making something that is usually considered insignificant like an insect, does make us look differently at them.” He says it “speaks of neither this nor that,” but I’m not so sure.

Insect observations appear in haiku by Japanese master Matsuo Basho, whom I think of as the late 1600s slightly more refined counterpart of 20th century Los Angeles poet Charles Bukowski, who was too busy with “other interests” to notice beetles, flies, mosquitoes and roadside weeds. In Moon Woke Me Up Nine Times: Selected Haiku of Basho, translator David Young writes: “Odd numbers predominate; a dance is occurring, and each third of the poem is a turn, a gesture, a refining or revelation… The poem seems to end almost as soon as it has begun, a small flash of lightning…A more literal version of the haiku cited (below) would be something like: What can save your life? / one leaf, with an insect / sleeping on its journey… the journey, which refers to a Chinese story that Basho’s readers would know but that is largely meaningless to English readers…‘Basho mash-ups,’ I have sometimes called my versions”:

One insect
asleep on a leaf
can save your life

Perhaps Basho was thinking of medicinal silkworms slumbering on mulberry leaves, or perhaps his mind was journeying among high mountains where ghost moths metamorphose with fungi into plant-animal hybrids that have been used in Asian medicine for centuries. David Young says about haiku: “They love to startle, first the writer and then the reader. As though a hummingbird were to land suddenly on your resting arm. It is the way the world so often surprises us.”

A haiku by Los Angeleno Mark Jun Poulos, whose observation of the seemingly mundane urban habitat nagged at me long after I thought I had dismissed its ordinary elements from consciousness:

restroom sink-—
ladybug cooling off
in a drop of water

What nagged at me was water, a vital ingredient of life, which as hard sprays of rain washes away pesky mites and aphids that are ladybug prey. Water (H2O) is also a missing ingredient in most ecological studies of interplanting, a habitat diversity strategy designed to boost populations of lady beetles and other beneficial insects providing natural pest control. Australian grape vineyards and California lettuce fields have had some success interplanting blooming rows of sweet alyssum to provide pollen, nectar and alternative prey for ladybugs, lacewings, hover flies and other beneficial species consuming aphids and other pests. Sweet alyssum is also host to micro-wasps helping Michigan asparagus growers by parasitizing leafmining pest insects, Amanda Buchanan of Michigan State University reported at the Entomological Society of America (ESA) annual meeting in Minneapolis. But if habitats are missing water, then perhaps lady beetles, which do not puncture plants to drink fluid, will leave to find restroom sinks, puddles or other water sources. Perhaps, like providing water bowls for pets, something similar needs to be researched as part of biological control habitat alternatives. Though I would draw the line at alcoholic drinks, except perhaps beer in snail and slug traps. Another urban haiku observation by Mark Jun Poulos:

sultry afternoon—
wasp hovers over a whiskey bottle
held by a drunk bum

Ethanol or ethyl alcohol, by percentage the main chemical component of distilled whiskey, should not be abused, nor perhaps should it be so heavily subsidized as a biofuel, as that incentive exacerbates huge landscape changes measurable as reduced biodiversity. At Synergies in Science, a rare Minneapolis gathering of the ESA, American Society of Agronomy, Crop Science Society of America and Soil Science Society of America, the diminishing biodiversity of a Midwest USA with 21% less wheat, 16% less hay and much more GMO corn to distill into ethanol motor fuels was as hard to ignore as a drunk with a whiskey bottle on an urban bench. Jonathan Lundgren of the USDA-ARS in Brookings, South Dakota said we need to get away from our “very pest-centric approach” and adopt a more holistic biological network approach. Instead of a Midwest saturated with pesticides to grow GMO corn to distill into fuel tank ethanol, something as seemingly simple as adding biodiversity via cover crops amongst the corn rows could produce enough soil biocontrol of corn rootworm to eliminate wasteful neonicotinoid seed treatments whose honey bee and beneficial insect friendliness is being hotly debated. Karen Friley of Kentucky State University reported at the ESA that something as seemingly simple as native plant border rows around sweet corn fields “provide microclimates in the form of moderated temperatures, which offer shelter” for numerous natural enemies controlling corn pests.

Curiously enough, ethanol (alcohol) like that in whiskey bottles and vehicle fuels also attracts pine beetles and ambrosia beetles considered destructive forest, landscape, street tree and nursery pests. Perhaps more curiously, the very trees being attacked are producing the ethanol and releasing it into the atmosphere when stressed (e.g. by drought or flood), decaying or dying. Trees may look perfectly healthy on the outside, but inside the tree is another story, because ethanol emissions are signs of sickliness and ill health. Chemical ecologist Christopher Ranger of the USDA-ARS in Wooster, Ohio said it is a real problem, for example, when nursery seedlings are used to replant spruce forests or with dogwoods, magnolias, pines, etc. in nurseries, backyards, along streets, etc. It is definitely ecology, as the ethanol is luring in the beetles to help “recycle” the trees back into the soil as nutrients.

I liked Ranger’s reasoning: Find the tree equivalent of driver breathalyzer tests as a beetle-attack early warning system. SCRAM wrist bracelets worn by offenders for transdermal drug and alcohol detection were tested, but were not sensitive enough; taking a week to detect low tree ethanol exhalations, whereas beetles detect a few parts per million of alcohol and get to trees almost on day one. The solution was a portable ethanol monitoring device with a detector tube and a plunger to pull in air samples; developed using Japan’s Gas Tech industrial gas leak detection technology for quick detection of “inebriated” trees.

So, which is more startling and surprising: art, haiku or entomology?

Strange brew: September 17, 2015 daylight turning to dark, caught in one of those infamous, almost proverbial L.A. traffic jams at a freeway underpass on Church Lane transitioning from Sunset Blvd to Sepulveda Pass on my way past the Getty Museum to Mulholland Drive, listening to the Moody Blues Live at Red Rocks, going nowhere. Haiku and fireflies flashing internally, and externally the blinking side turn lites and red back brake lights suddenly and surprisingly metmorphosed into synchronous fireflies, albeit of a mechanical or robotic nature:

Tail and Turn Lights
Flashing like Synchronous Fireflies
In the Los Angeles Traffic Jam


Termite Power! (Green/Alternative Energy)

February 25, 2015

TERMITE BIOMASS ENERGY conversion offers a potential 95% to 99% efficiency in converting woody plants into usable energy forms comparable to ethanol fuels and petroleum products. “Termites are regarded as harmful because of the ability to decompose cellulosic materials such as houses made of wood,” said University of the Ryukyus (Okinawa, Japan) researchers Toru Matsui, Gaku Tokuda and Naoya Shinzato in the journal Recent Patents on Biotechnology. However, “Termites and/or their symbionts (e.g. gut protozoa & bacteria) are potentially good resource of functional genes for industrial applications…for biomass utilization, environmental remediation, and fine-chemicals production.”

Several termite genes have already been patented for biofuel (cellulase) and fighting infections (antimicrobial peptides). Combinations of cellulase enzymes and anaerobic symbionts have also been harnessed to produce hydrogen fuel (H2 gas) from waste plastics. “Lignin treatment by anaerobic bacteria from the gut of” several termite species has also been patented; thus pointing towards a greener pathway in place of today’s less environmentally-friendly caustic chemical processes. Termite energy production mechanisms might also be released as Open Source scientific information, instead of patented, as was once common in the scientific world. Indeed, the real practical innovations for sustainable world energy production may be in turning the raw material of biological science basic research into economical applied chemical engineering and bio-engineering solutions. In other words, a new energy production landscape dotted with bio-refineries approaching the 95% to 99% energy conversion efficiency of termite guts digesting woody plant and fiber materials is an objective worth working towards.

Being an ancient insect order, termites have been tapping into Earth’s abundant woody plant resources for perhaps 400 million years; well before dinosaurs and then humans roamed and pillaged the planet. “Cellulose is the most abundant biomass on the earth,” write the Ryukyus researchers. “Termites thrive on plant biomass, in which the major constituents are cellulose, hemicellulose (i.e. non-cellulosic carbohydrates), and lignin…In addition, it can be hydrolyzed to give a sugar pool which can be subsequently fermented to form ethanol, etc. However, the crystalline nature of cellulose had made it difficult to economically convert into useful chemical feedstocks…Other than cellulosic materials decomposition, there could be symbionts degrading lignin-derived compounds, a significant part of the wood constituents.”

At the hops-soaked Entomological Society of America (ESA) annual meeting in Portland, Oregon, the parallels between microbrewing (hops & microbes), baking (yeasts; Voodoo donuts) and termite guts as fermentation vats (bio-refineries) producing energy fuels was bubbling just below the surface. Several research labs, including Michael Scharf’s Purdue University lab, are evaluating the genes and metabolic processes innate to termites as well as the contributions of protozoa, bacteria and other microbes living as symbionts in termite guts and helping digest plant lignins and cellulose into usable energy compounds. Figuring out how termites and their gut microbes are such efficient converters of plant matter into energy is a huge undertaking, even with the latest DNA and genetic tools.

Brittany Peterson, an ESA termite biofuel presenter working in Scharf’s lab writes on her web page about “the co-evolution of termites and their over 4,000 symbiotic microorganisms.” The implication being that the termite hindgut is a bio-refinery where termites and their microbial symbionts constitute the equivalent of a vast unknown ecosystem whose parameters are just now being delimited. Peterson and the Scharf lab view termite guts as a model system for studying synergy and biomass processing of tough toxins like lignin. In other words, as the basis and inspiration for designing green bio-refineries for alternative energy and feedstock production processes more energy efficient than turning food crops like corn into ethanol fuel.

Of course, this means figuring out exactly how termites and their several thousand hindgut microbes extract simple sugars from wood’s complex lignin-cellulose polymer structure. This termite/microbe “digestion” (or depolymerization) has an amazing 95%-99% efficiency that industrial biomass processing or biofuel production cannot match even using very toxic caustic chemistries. Most research on termite gut microbes has focused on protozoa, but Peterson envisions adding bacteria and termite-produced enzymes to create a synergistic bio-refinery mixture. In other words, replacing current caustic and energy inefficient biomass conversion chemistries with greener, more energy efficient biological technologies composed of termite-derived enzymes, bacteria and protozoa to depolymerize biomass and produce usable sugars/energy.

The synergy of termite (host) and gut microbes likely makes possible the observed over 95% lignin-cellulose biomass processing efficiency; 82% of the genes for lignin-cellulose processing, including high expression of cellulase enzymes, come from or are innate to the termite itself rather than the symbiotic gut microbes, Peterson told the ESA annual meeting. Though the termite-microbe synergism boosts the the energy efficiency to quite high levels approaching 100%. At least for woody materials.

Interestingly, though, when termites eat paper, most of the biomass processing genes come from the gut microbes. Thus, a quite complex digestive ecosystem that seems to vary greatly with the food (feedstock) input. The gut microbes also help termites detoxify harmful materials and provide antioxidant protection. Scientific bioassays using various combinations of antibiotic drug treatments and anti-protozoa diets are enabling the Scharf lab to construct a microbial “library” for continuing research, Peterson told the ESA. Recent experiments with bacteria isolated from the subterranean termite Reticulitermes flavipes, indicate that the bacteria either alone or via interaction with protozoa boost glucose (sugar; an energy feedstock) release from lignin-cellulose (plant) biomass.

In the future, it is conceivable that bio-refineries using termite enzymes, bacterial enzymes and protozoa will make today’s ethanol and biomass to energy conversion processes look like toxic, inefficient relics of a primitive industrial energy production past. But it will likely be many more years before bio-engineers and chemical engineers are ready to begin the commercial harvest of termite energy to power our vehicles, the Internet, etc.

An Eco-Organic Ode to Ethanol (Ethyl Alcohol)

June 6, 2012

ETHANOL, AN ANCIENT DISINFECTANT commonly used in today’s medical and health-care hand sanitizers, is also produced by microbes in food fermentation and natural ecosystems. A simple two-carbon molecule abbreviated EtOH by chemists, ethanol (ethyl alcohol) is also routinely used in organic chemistry and commerce as a solvent for natural essences or tinctures like perfumes, food flavorings, and medicinals.

“By far the most common natural source of ethanol is fermentation of fruit sugars by yeasts,” wrote Douglas J. Levey in The Evolutionary Ecology of Ethanol Production and Alcoholism, an article in Oxford Journals’ Integrative & Comparative Biology. “Although ethanol is an end product of fermentation, the fungi that produce it are locked in a complex set of interactions with fruiting plants, frugivorous vertebrates, and other microbes. Given that ethanol affects both vertebrates and microbes, it is likely to have at least some adaptive basis. In particular, it may be viewed as a defensive agent, used by yeasts to inhibit growth of competing microbes in much the same way as penicillin is thought to give Penicillium fungi the upper hand in competition with bacteria.”

“In an anthropological context, fermentation can be viewed as controlled spoilage of food,” wrote Levey. “The microbes responsible for the later stages of food spoilage generally cannot grow in alcoholic or acidic environments. Thus, by culturing the production of alcohols and in many cases organic acids via limited exposure to oxygen, the food is protected. Long before refrigeration and synthetic additives, fermentation was one of the most important food preservation technologies… As they discovered the inebriating qualities of some fermented foods, they focused attention on those fermentative processes, ultimately leading to the beer and wine industries of today.”

Ethanol and fermentation are part of fruit plant reproductive ecology. Ethanol molecules multi-task: Fruit pulp is protected from microbial decay by ethanol. Ethanol also attracts fruit pulp-eating (frugivorous) animals aiding plant reproduction via seed dispersal. In essence, fruit pulp is redirected in the ecological food chain from microbes to higher animals, to the benefit of fruit plant reproduction.

“The low molecular weight of ethanol and its substantial concentration within fruit pulp well suit this molecule for long-distance signaling of availability to appropriate consumers,” wrote Robert Dudley in an article titled Ethanol, Fruit Ripening, and the Historical Origins of Human Alcoholism in Primate Frugivores in a 2004 issue of Integrative & Comparative Biology. “Ripening involves production of a number of fruit volatiles, but ethanol is perhaps the only olfactory commonality to an otherwise bewildering taxonomic array of angiosperm fruits.”

“As with longevity and fitness benefits of ethanol exposure in fruit flies, epidemiological studies in modern humans demonstrate a reduction in cardiovascular risk and overall mortality at low levels of ethanol consumption relative either to abstinence or to higher intake levels,” writes Dudley. “If natural selection has acted on human ancestors to associate ethanol with nutritional reward, then excessive consumption by modern humans may be viewed as such a disease of nutritional excess. Availability of ethanol at concentrations higher than those attainable by yeast fermentation alone (i.e., 10–12%) is a very recent event in human history.”

Underscoring the importance of ethanol in ecosystems, yeast fungi survive up to 15% (v/v) ethanol concentrations that are lethal to most microbes. Distillation, a technique known to ancient alchemists that survived the transition from magical potions to modern chemical science, of course boosts ethanol concentrations to much higher and more lethal/toxic levels than those found in natural ecosystems.

Ethanol is also an ecological feedstock. Yeasts and certain bacteria further transform (oxidize) ethanol into acetic acid or vinegar, which besides being culinary is toxic to many microbes. In India and elsewhere, anti-microbial solutions of vinegar and baking soda commonly replace harsh commercial chemicals for floor and surface cleaning.

Ethanol’s role as an animal attractant can be turned to human advantage: for example, in ecological pest control as part of traps or trap crops. Christopher Ranger and Michael Reding of the USDA-ARS in Wooster, Ohio, and Peter Schultz, Director of Virginia Beach’s Hampton Roads Agricultural Research and Extension Center told the Entomological Society of America (ESA): Ethanol released by stressed (e.g. lack of water) or doped (injected with ethanol) forest or nursery trees (e.g. magnolias) attracts ambrosia beetles (Xylosandrus species). “A successful trap crop strategy might include 75ml (2.5 fl oz) of 90% ethanol injection of cull or park grade trees of an attractive species within the field production block or along the border between a woodlot and the high value nursery crop species,” said Schultz.&&

In the USA, where the federal government controversially subsidizes corn ethanol and mandates its use as a fuel, Douglas Landis and University of Illinois-Urbana colleagues Mary Gardinera, Wopke van der Werf and Scott Swinton wrote of the deleterious ecological consequences of growing too much corn in a 2008 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA. In contrast to intercropping strategies promoting landscape diversity and biocontrol of pests by natural enemies, increasingly large almost monoculture acreages of corn create a less diverse landscape with less biocontrol in other regional crops like soybeans. Too much corn in the landscape costs soybean producers in Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin an estimated $239 million in reduced yields and increased pest control costs.

Not that planting corn need be bad. Indeed, the Native Americans traditionally interplanted corn with squash, beans, strawberries, sunflowers, and diverse weedy species that promoted ecological balance between pests and natural enemies. “Biological control of insects is an ecosystem service that is strongly influenced by local landscape structure,” wrote Landis et al. “Altering the supply of aphid natural enemies to soybean fields and reducing biocontrol services by 24%” from planting too much corn cost an estimated $58 million in soybean crop loss and control costs for just one pest, the soybean aphid.

Distiller’s dried grains (DDGs) leftover from ethanol production could potentially be utilized in innovative ways. Though with billions of gallons of corn ethanol being distilled, the emphasis is understandably on utilizing big tonnages of DDGs for animal feed, mulches, etc., rather than really innovative research that could yield niche corn-based products for medical use. Yiqi Yang, a Professor of Biological Systems Engineering and Charles Bessey Professor in the Nebraska Center for Materials and Nanoscience and the Departments of Biological Systems Engineering and Textiles, Clothing and Design at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, believes that small research investments could yield niche innovations like medicines (e.g. corn-derived cancer-fighting molecules small enough to enter the brain) and biodegradable filters that can be left in the human body.

Beneficial Termites, An Oil Alternative for the Hydrogen Economy

August 28, 2009

TERMITES AS beneficial insects? Seems preposterous when Formosan subterranean termites (Coptotermes formosanus) cause billions of dollars of structural damage annually in the U.S. And termites are not found in the catalogs of Rincon-Vitova and other insectaries selling beneficial insects that minimize pesticide use by biologically destroying pests. But back in his Nobel Prize-winning days as a University of California, Berkeley, physicist, U.S. Dept. of Energy Secretary Steven Chu looked deeply inside termites and saw microbial biorefineries producing hydrogen gas and a potential solution to America’s almost addictive dependency on foreign oil imports.

Global warming worriers might think this a bit odd, as collectively the world’s termites emit an estimated 15% of global methane, a greenhouse gas and natural gas energy fuel. But, oddly enough, the eastern subterranean termites (Reticulitermes flavipes) and Formosan subterranean termites dining on wood structures in the USA are more environmentally correct creatures, eschewing methane and emitting valuable hydrogen gas instead. This hydrogen gas, if produced in bio-refineries powered by termite technologies, could replace traditional carbon-based petroleum fuels and reduce oil dependence.

In chemical terms: For every mole (a chemical unit of measurement) of wood glucose consumed, subterranean termites excrete 2-4 moles of hydrogen gas. Just like cows, termites have an array of gut microbes aiding digestion of plant cellulose. Microbial prospectors searching the termite gut instead of rainforest jungles, have discovered previously unknown gut microbes converting wood products into hydrogen gas. Harnessed in bioreactors, hydrogen gas produced by termites and their gut microbes can be the basis for a new hydrogen economy as the power source for pollution-free vehicles.

Mississippi State University’s Zhong Sun and others reporting at Entomological Society of America annual meetings note that termites and their gut protozoa are the best biological hydrogen production technology known. In part, this is because termites can convert 74-99% of cellulose substrate into fermentable sugars. Thus, one gram (0.035 oz) of wood in a termite biorefinery can generate 10 liters (1 quart) of hydrogen gas.

Onward to the hydrogen economy, with subterranean termite gas in the automobile fuel tank.