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


Cholera Biocontrol (vaccines & antibiotics are insufficient)

October 22, 2015

CHOLERA, a VIRULENT, SOMETIMES lethal version of Montezuma’s Revenge, the diarrheal gut scourge bane of travelers, is commonly associated with pesky Vibrio bacteria; though similar symptoms are associated with the sometimes disease-causing and sometimes beneficial E. coli gut bacterium and many other intestinal tract microbes. Cholera is commonly controlled by an integrated management approach, often including proper sewage sanitation, water filtration, antibiotics, vaccines, rehydration therapy and the fortuitous presence of natural enemies known as phages.

Phages, short for bacteriophages, are ‘bacteria-eating’ viruses; the name phage is from the Greek word ‘phagein’, which means ‘to eat’. One might think of cholera as being like the black plague, a no longer relevant disease of the past. But a recent Google News search indicates lethal cholera outbreaks worldwide: From 54 dead in one month in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, to Rwanda and Nigeria in Africa to Iraq in the Middle East and Haiti in the Americas; with worries about outbreaks in refugee camps worldwide where wars rage and after natural disasters such as earthquakes destroy sanitary infrastructure. In Iraq, “The epidemic is concentrated in the town of Abu Ghraib, situated about 25 kilometers (15 miles) west of the capital, Baghdad, where cholera has claimed at least 10 lives,” according to Iran’s Press TV. “Health Ministry spokesman Rifaq al-Araji has blamed the cholera epidemic in Iraq on low water levels in the Euphrates, noting that simmering temperatures during summer months may have activated the bacterium that causes the deadly disease…Cholera is an acute intestinal infection caused by ingestion of food or water contaminated with the bacterium Vibrio cholerae. It is a fast-developing infection that causes diarrhea, which can quickly lead to severe dehydration and death if treatment is not promptly provided.”

According to a “Major Article” in THE JOURNAL OF INFECTIOUS DISEASES: “Vibrio cholerae serogroup O1 and O139 organisms cause acute, watery diarrhea, with an estimated 100, 000–150, 000 deaths annually…Despite global efforts to improve drinking water quality and sanitation in developing countries, there has been little evidence of a decline in the global burden of cholera in recent years. Interest has therefore increased in the use of cholera vaccines as adjuncts to other preventive and therapeutic measures…Live oral cholera vaccines have the theoretical advantage of simulating infection by natural cholera. Experimental infection of North American volunteers has been shown to protect against cholera upon rechallenge…However, to date no live oral vaccine has conferred protection to cholera-endemic populations when tested in a randomized trial, suggesting that the predictions from studies of volunteers lacking preexisting immunity to cholera may not be readily generalizable to cholera-endemic populations.”

According to the United Nations News Centre: “A global stockpile of vaccines, funded by a number of international organizations and foundations, initially made 2 million doses of the vaccine available. In 2015, with additional funding from the GAVI Alliance, the number of doses available for use in both endemic hotspots and emergency situations is expected to rise to around 3 million. There are several examples in which the vaccine has stopped cholera outbreaks in their tracks, such as in South Sudan in 2014…But new outbreaks are ongoing in South Sudan and Tanzania” in 2015, indicating vaccines to produce natural immunity in conjunction with the best that can be done in the way of sanitation and clean water supplies is not enough. Using phages to produce natural biological control of the cholera bacterium, as part of a low-cost, integrated pest management approach, seems to have been totally and completely neglected, almost as if the successes of natural biocontrol of disease bacteria with phages from the years 1917 into the 1930s and continuing into the present in some parts of the world have been totally purged from the Western medical and public health history books. A costly neglect, in terms of human lives.

“Cholera generated as much horror and revulsion among Europeans as bubonic plague had before it, in part because of the blue-black shriveled appearance of its victims and in part because it could strike anyone without warning and kill in 4 to 6 hours,” according to an overview in Microbiological Reviews which implicated “sailors and colonists” in cholera’s global spread, not just poor sanitation (mixing sewage into drinking water supplies). “Although cholera is treatable with antibiotics and oral rehydration therapy (fluid and electrolyte replacement), it is nevertheless an extremely debilitating and sometimes fatal disease. The severe dehydration and cramps symptomatic of the disease are a consequence of the rapid, extreme loss of fluid and electrolytes during the course of the infection. The diarrhea is caused by the action of cholera toxin (CT), secreted by the bacterium Vibrio cholerae, although in some cases it may be caused by the related Escherichia coli heat-labile enterotoxin (LT).”

Historically, as mentioned in a previous blog post titled “Compost for Sustainable Soil Fertility & Disease Suppression,” Japanese cities adopted a more sustainable approach and thereby escaped the cholera epidemics afflicting London, Paris, India, the rest of Asia and the Americas: “Human waste, euphemistically called night soil, became a valuable soil fertility commodity in old Japan. Perhaps not quite worth its weight in gold, but a valuable commodity bought, sold, traded, and transported long distances from cities to farms. Rather than causing cholera and other diseases by entering the water supply as was common in European cities of the same era, sanitation and composting blessed Japan with multiple dividends…Farmers in old Japan spent their own money to build toilets and urinals along well-traveled roads for public use…” No doubt phages were also part of the integrated mix of methods providing natural biological control of cholera in old Japan, even if the invisibly small phages went unrecognized.

The 20th century use of phages for biological control of cholera and other disease bacteria was pioneered by the self-taught, French-Canadian microbiologist Felix d’Herelle, whose phage work was said by many to also be the foundation for modern molecular biology. An itinerant or journeyman scientist, who spent his life much like the modern-day post-doc, migrating from job to job around the world as he promoted phage therapy, d’Herelle was working with the Pasteur Institute in Paris while French and German troops were lining up against each other on the Western Front in World War I. In North Africa, as early as 1910, d’Herelle was pioneering the use of microbes to control biblical style locust plagues in North Africa, when he first noticed something killing the microbes used to kill the locusts; in other words, a complex ecosystem in which a higher level of natural enemies killed the lower-level natural enemies providing biological locust control.

During a World War I Paris dysentery outbreak, d’Herelle deduced that some patients were benefiting from phages invisibly providing biological control of the disease microbes. D’Herelle’s 1917 article on the subject for the French Academie des Sciences was titled “Sur un microbe invisible antagonistic des bacilles dysenterique” (“On an Invisible Microbe Antagonistic to Dysentery Bacteria”). “D’Herelle claimed that the antagonistic principle was filterable, living and organized, and hence a microbe,” wrote medical historian Ton Van Helvoort. D’Herelle “thought the living nature of the principle was proved by the possibility of transmitting it in a series of cultures of dysentery bacilli.”

Albert Einstein, who won a Nobel Prize for proving unseen forces and counter-intuitive phenomena based on mathematical constructs, agreed with d’Herelle. “The statistical explanation, which d’Herelle argued intuitively, is based on the properties of sampling that can be described by the mathematical expression known as the Poisson distribution,” wrote William Summers in his book, Felix d’Herelle and the Origins of Molecular Biology. “D’Herelle bolstered not only this argument but his own status with his well-known footnote giving Einstein’s opinion of this experiment: ‘In discussing this question with my colleague, Professor Einstein, he told me, as a physicist, he would consider this experiment as demonstrating the discontinuity of the bacteriophage. I was very glad to see how this deservedly-famous mathematician evaluated my experimental demonstration, for I do not believe that there are a great many biological experiments whose nature satisfies a physicist’…Since we have now presented the evidence proving the corpuscular nature of the bacteriophage we will no longer make use of such vague expressions as bacteriophage ‘liquid,’ ‘Fluid,’ or ‘filtrate,’ but will employ instead the more precise term’…The validity of the plaque counting assay and corpuscular nature of phage, however, would remain controversial and divide phage workers into two camps until the early 1940s.”

“The bacteriophage phenomenon was the observation that an abundant and therefore cloudy bacterial culture lysed within a short time to a clear solution under the influence of a filterable lytic ‘principle’,” wrote medical historian Ton van Helvoort. “The interpretation of this phenomenon gave rise to two main opposing positions, represented by Felix d’Herelle and Jules Bordet, who clashed heavily. In 1917, d’Herelle proposed the term “bacteriophage” for the lytic principle and was convinced it was to be characterized as a filterable virus which could lyse the bacterial culture. Therefore, this lysis was a virus disease of the bacteria which he named bacteriophagy. In the 1920s this interpretation was severely criticized by, among others, the bacteriologist and serologist Jules Bordet, who received the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1919. Bordet’s view was that bacteriophagy was linked with the metabolism of the bacterium, while the involvement of a virus was rejected.” The dispute morphed into a personal vendetta against d’Herelle, whose strong personality was perhaps hated as much as his phage theories and his views on the dangers of vaccination that were considered heretical by the era’s Nobel Prize-winning immunologists.

According to medical historian Dottore Emiliano Fruciano: “In presenting his concepts to the scientific and world community, d’Herelle connected his phage interventions to a theoretical system that clashed with those held by institutional medical science. d’Herelle thought that the reason for natural recovery was not the humoral and cellular mechanisms activated by the immune system, but rather the presence of a virulent phage for the pathogenic bacterium in the host. His observations led him to believe that phage was a common guest of every organism from man to silkworm…d’Herelle concluded that phage was the exogenous agent of natural recovery, leading to ‘spontaneous recovery’…

“Recovery was a case of the prevalence of phage over the bacterium, and death was a case of the prevalence of bacterium over phage,” wrote Fruciano. “Furthermore, d’Herelle hypothesized that phage was able to spread among ill people, mainly via stool; thus, a lack of hygiene, while contributing to infection, would also lead to recovery; phage would have been the reason for the end of epidemics. This characteristic made phage, the recovery agent, transmissible between individuals, just like the agent of disease…

“In support of his theory of natural recovery, d’Herelle cited exemplary phenomena, including recovery following exposure to cholera. In cholera, patients generally convalesced after two or three days (sometimes within 12 hours) of initial symptoms; even ‘artificial’ recoveries through phage therapy often occurred after 24 hours. However, according to d’Herelle, observations from many animal diseases had demonstrated that it took many more days for immunity to become effective in the fight against infection. To explain natural recovery through the mechanisms of immunity was not possible because of the timing.

“Moreover, in diseases such as typhus and plague, which are characterized by strong immunity, relapses were possible during convalescence. This would mean that the patient, although convalescing, was still not immune. In these kinds of pathologies, typically typhus and plague, immunity usually lasts forever, yet immunity only comes into play 20 days following convalescence. According to d’Herelle, ‘Immunity, far from being the cause of recovery, is a consequence of recovery’. Further confirmation of d’Herelle’s theory was given by the statistics of the three hospitals in Calcutta, India. Paradoxically, the lowest rate of mortality for cholera (27%) was recorded at the hospital for poor people, the Campbell Hospital, while the highest rate of mortality (86%) was recorded at a hospital for rich people, the European Hospital – a hospital recognized in 1926 for its wealthy patients and hygienic conditions. There were fewer deaths at the hospital where care and hygiene were poor, that is, where the possibility for the development and dissemination of virulent phage or the recovery agent were best.”

The cholera and phage biocontrol case in general became intolerably heretical to many in the scientific medical establishment, what with d’Herelle’s warnings against the dangers of conventional vaccinations and the radical challenge to conventional consensus medical theories supported by immunologists who had won Nobel Prizes in medicine, said Fruciano: “According to d’Herelle, immunity and recovery were two different processes; only after the bacteriolytic action of phage could immunity be developed. Furthermore, there were two kinds of immunity: heterologous immunity, linked to the presence of phage activity against the pathogen, and homologous immunity, linked to immune system activity.

“…man contracts cholera because his immune system is not able to neutralize the bacterium. In d’Herelle’s opinion, in the case of patients with cholera, recovery occurs because of the presence of a virulent phage for Vibrio cholerae as a result of heterologous immunity, not because of natural or homologous immunity. d’Herelle found that the administration of phage resulted not only in a quick recovery, but also lasting immunity. He also asserted that a suspension of phage had strong immunizing power (here in the traditional sense) because the bacterial substances dissolved by phage action induced immune system reactions… d’Herelle’s findings were contrary to the conclusions of Metchnikoff, Bordet and Ehrlich, the founders of immunology…phage therapy efficacy would have required a revision of the current explanation of natural recovery…In other words, the proof of efficacy of phage therapy was equivalent to the proof of the truthfulness of d’Herelle’s heretical theories. Thus, to verify the efficacy of phage therapy and prevention measures, the principles of modern medicine were at stake; this was a paradigm shift for the scientific community.”

Of course, in the early years of the 20th century, prior to the invention of the electron microscope to provide visual evidence, the immunologists could plausibly argue against the existence of phages (despite Einstein’s endorsement); and in the absence of modern genomics, indeed before DNA and RNA were implicated in heredity, matching the right mixture of phages with a particular disease bacterium was perhaps more art than science, an art in continuous successful practice in just a few places such as the ex-Soviet Republics of Georgia and Russia, and Poland. Also, early 20th century medical experiments are not considered rigorous by current standards. All of which makes the several hundred successful phage experiments and interventions against cholera, plague, typhus and other diseases subject to blanket dismissal; and, hence, the absence of natural biological control from Western medical practices, medical schools, and institutional research agendas.

“The following details some of the most sensational results in phage prophylaxis that would seem to contradict the eventual dismissal of d’Herelle’s works,” stated Fruciano. “In 1927, an epidemic of Asiatic cholera was halted at its start in several villages with 2000 to 3000 Punjabi inhabitants via two methods of phage prophylaxis delivery: the first was the addition of potent, individually dosed phage preparations, and the second was the administration of phage prophylaxis to local water supplies. In both scenarios, the epidemic was terminated within 48 hours; in the past, the same result was achieved through traditional interventions within a 26-day time period.

“…at the St Mary Hospital in London, England, where penicillin was first discovered, Himmelweit developed a cross-therapy involving a combination of phage and penicillin to reduce the possibility of penicillin-resistant bacteria. This solution was very promising…Above all, the conjoined administration of phage and penicillin gave positive outcomes in clinical trials. It is likely that this experimental solution worked well because, as it is known today, the mechanisms by which phage and penicillin kill bacteria are different. Unfortunately, this alternative use of phage, in combination with penicillin, has been abandoned. Why has this possibility been forgotten despite the fact that antibiotic-resistant bacteria appeared as soon as penicillin was introduced into medical practice?

“…Summers, a historian of medicine who delved deeply into d’Herelle’s scientific works, speaks of the “Soviet Taint” as a plausible reason for the lack of interest in phage as an antimicrobial agent. Following World War II, phage therapy research continued only in eastern European countries, and “d’Herelle’s Cure” became “Stalin’s Cure”. According to Summers, phage therapy and prophylactic measures became ideological symbols of divisions and disagreements between western and eastern countries, partially explaining the lack of interest in phage as an antibacterial agent in Western medical science.”

Silkworms for Medicine & Good Health

August 17, 2014

A SILKWORM A DAY may not keep the doctor away, but for some in South Korea silkworm proteins are the pathway towards reduced Alzheimer’s disease, less diabetes, less fatigue, stronger muscles and perhaps eventually gold and silver Olympic swimming medals; much the way ghost moth caterpillars naturally infected with cordyceps fungi are used by Chinese athletes and herbal medicine practitioners. Silkworm production dates back several thousand years, and likely came to the Korean Peninsula via China, where over a thousand years ago bolts of silk (30 ft/bolt; one day’s production by a skilled weaver) were equal to silver and gold as hard currencies. A director of the International Dunhuang Project (IDP) investigating ancient Silk Road links between Asia, the Middle East and Europe, Susan Whitfield, wrote in her book, Life Along the Silk Road, that distrust of promissory notes led to demands that horse buyers pay with bolts of silk. According to A Guide to Korean Cultural Heritage (Korean Information Service, 2001): “In Korea, ma (hemp) and ppong (mulberry) trees were cultivated; myeonpo (cotton cloth) and mapo (hemp cloth), as well as hapsa (twisted thread)” and jasu (embroidery) on silk date back well over a thousand years to a time when China imported fine silks from Korea.

Medically, biodegradable silkworm fibers are highly valued for their biocompatiblity (i.e. minimal immune response) when sewn with human tissues as sutures or stitches. Various formulations of silk are also useful in surgical or bioengineering operations such as growing new bones, nerves or blood vessels. “As has been documented over decades, silk protein exhibits high mechanical strength and flexibility, permeability to water and oxygen and can be made into nets, sponges or membranes, being easily handled, manipulated and sterilized…especially in tissue engineering for the generation of artificial bones or ligaments,” write researchers at China’s Nantong University investigating “silk-based or silk-coated materials for peripheral nerve repair.” The idea being to use silk “as scaffold material to prepare the tissue engineered nerve grafts for promoting peripheral nerve regeneration.” Silk scaffolds or blood vessels can also be designed to release various drugs (e.g. anti-coagulants, antimicrobials, anti-inflammatory agents).

Silks can also be naturally colored or made luminescent (fluorescent) by incorporating coloring agents into silkworm mulberry leaf diets: Hence, “novel silk-based material (that) not only maintains the superior properties of natural silk but can also be imbued with additional properties to perform sensing and monitoring functions” such as measuring changes in wound or tissue pH (i.e. acidity, alkalinity), says Dr. Han Mingyong, Senior Scientist at Singapore’s Institute of Materials Research and Engineering (IMRE). “The novel silk material can be used as fabrics in apparel, and furnishing. In biomaterials, it can add function to sutures, wound dressings, and tissue engineering scaffolds.” All this at “minimal cost and with little modification” of centuries-old standard silkworm production practices, but with real environmental benefits because: “The lengthy dyeing process and post-processing steps in conventional silk making are completely removed.”

Silkworm silk production involves getting the adult female silkworm moths, which are flightless and can no longer live in the wild after centuries of domestication, to lay eggs that hatch into caterpillars living on mulberry (some species prefer oak) leaves. When the silkworms pupate, they spin a silken cocoon which is dropped in boiling water so that the outer silk threads unravel and can be spun into the fibers of commerce. “According to legend, 5,000 years ago Chinese Empress Xi Ling-Shi discovered silk when a silkworm cocoon fell into her hot cup of tea,” says “She unraveled the strange cocoon and, wrapping the thread around her finger, soon realized what an exquisite cloth it would make…If this is true, the silkworm that haplessly fell into the empress’ cup on that fateful day met a fate very similar to that of modern day silkworms.” Being insects, which are animals, they are not vegetarian fare; those concerned with animal cruelty and animal rights activists need to consider that these silkworms are in essence a human-created species (almost a symbiosis) and unable to survive in the wild.

Beondegi (번데기), the boiled or steamed silkworm chrysalis, are served as a snack food on the streets in Korea, and University of Florida, Gainesville, entomology professor Nan-Yao Su, who donated termite trap (Sentricon) royalties to establish the Entomological Society of America’s (ESA) “Nan-Yao Su Award for Innovation and Creativity in Entomology,” told me of eating silkworm snacks as a student in Japan. Dr. Su was not that impressed, an opinion shared by a South Korean and her Brazilian guest’s “gag me with a spoon response” on Izumislife vlog on YouTube; though an older Korean lady in the background, presumably more well-versed in beondegi’s medicinal properties was gulping down the boiled insects sold by the street vendor like there was no tomorrow (increased longevity may indeed be a beondegi benefit). Evidently, silkworms or beondegi (번데기) are a cultivated taste. But Dr. Su, with Professor Marjorie Hoy as my witness, professed not to be a Trader Joe’s fan either. So, I kept to my plan to attend the Tuesday night ESA Annual Meeting Korean Young Entomologists networking meeting, which led off with drones for delivering biocontrol insects and concluded with a trio of researchers fresh off the plane from South Korea to talk (in Korean; with slides in English) about their impressive latest research on the medical benefits of eating silkworm proteins. I was impressed with the research, and spent the last few months reading the English language scientific literature on silkworms for medicine and good health. The result is an overly long blog, like those 3-hour articles I used to read in the New Yorker instead of going to sleep at night; but since the blog readers mainly come here via search engines looking for information on a topic, I figure overly long is okay.

The Korean Young Entomologists (KYE) Member Symposium led off with Yong-Lak Park’s “Shooting insects from the sky: Aerial delivery of natural enemies using aerospace engineering,” and finally sometime between 9 and 10 at night (some time changes from ESA Internet site) came the silkworm presentations by Eunyoung Ahn, Hyobin Seo, and Yiseol Kim from South Korea’s Kyungpook National University. Researchers Sungpil Ryu, Taedong Kwon, Yunghi Yeo, and Mihee Cho contributed to the work, but were not present. The researchers made the point that silkworm pupae had a higher protein and amino acid content than soybeans, and were high in desirable unsaturated fatty acids that lowered blood lipid levels (anti-obesity). In rat feeding trials, powdered, freeze-dried silkworm proteins increased skeletal muscle volume when swimming was the exercise. This has obvious appeal to body builders and others involved in exercise and training seeking to increase muscle mass, strength and energy. Specific amino acids (glutamine, branched-chain amino acids, cysteine) were singled out as most important to the immune systems of athletes. A combination of silkworm proteins and exercise had multiple beneficial effects: increased antioxidants; decreased MDA and inflammatory cytokines. Swimming plus silkworm pupae also improved fat metabolism, leading to lower blood lipid levels; so a combination of silkworm protein and exercise was deemed good for promoting weight loss or combating the worldwide epidemic of obesity caused by “excess nutrition” (e.g. the trend towards super-sized portions). Other research indicated benefits involving blood cholesterol, reduced fat synthesis and accumulation, and preventing liver cirrhosis in high-fat diets. Thus, silkworm pupae are potential weight-loss foods or food supplements.

The 25-volume Dong-eui-bo-gam (동의보감) (Mirror of Eastern Medicine), published in 1613 by the legendary Korean royal physician Heo Jun (허준), called silkworm pupa a natural healthy food and nontoxic remedy for diabetes, ischemic disease and “thinning.” Modern medical research indicates Heo Jun knew what he was talking about, and was actually a couple of centuries ahead of modern Western medicine. Our knowledge of the potential medical benefits of silkworms is rapidly expanding, particularly in South Korea, China and Japan; and to a lesser degree in India, where the silkworms are often a different species feeding on oak tree leaves. We have only scratched the surface of the medical benefits of silkworms in this blog.

Asian Innovations in Insect Control

August 20, 2011

Innovations in Insect Control in Asia date back almost 2,000 years to when ancient Chinese farmers learned the art of biological insect control. China’s ancient orchardists annually introduced colonies of predatory ants to cultivated trees to control caterpillars and other pests of crops such as citrus. Ancient Chinese biocontrol practices included constructing bamboo bridges between trees, so predatory ants could easily wander from tree to tree foraging for pests.

Fast forward to the twenty-first century: Tea is arguably the second most widely consumed beverage, after water. Tea production occupies 2.7 million ha (6.7 million acres) in 34 countries, with 78% of production in Asia and 16% in Africa. Sustainable tea production practices emphasize displacing pesticides with cultural and biological control practices to control spider mites and other pests in tea plantations.

“The application of natural enemies in tea pest control aroused a large amount of investigations in the tea producing countries,” reported Yang Yajun and colleagues at the Tea Research Institute of Chinese Academy of Sciences at the 2005 International Symposium on Innovation in Tea Science and Sustainable Development in Tea Industry. “In South India, investigations showed the introduction of three species of entomophagous fungi in the control of tea spider mite (Oligonychus coffeae). In Japan, the use of pesticide-resistant predatory mite resulted in successful control…In Japan, one fungal preparation and one bacterial preparation were registered and used in control of tea diseases.” In China and Japan, viruses stop pesky leafrollers and loopers. Japan also has five fungal biocontrol products, one bacterial biocontrol preparation, and several kinds of parasitic and predatory natural enemy preparations to control tea insect pests.

“Great achievements in the application of physical and agricultural control methods in controlling the tea pests were advanced,” said Yajun et al. In Japan, China, and Malawi (Africa), yellow sticky traps and reflective films (near ultra-violet light) help control tea aphids, thrips, and leafhoppers (70-80% pest reduction). “A special mist wind insect-sucking machine was developed in Japan,” and it reduces tea leafhopper, whitefly, and spider mite populations.

Sex pheromones have been used for mating disruption in Japanese tea gardens since 1983 to control a pesky tea leafroller. Sex pheromones are also being used against other tea pests in Japan and China. Natural volatiles from the tea plant that attract natural enemies but not pests are also under development. For example, the April 2004 Chinese Journal of Applied Ecology (15(4):623-626) reported that beneficial lady beetles, green lacewings, and hover flys (syrphids) controlling tea aphids were attracted by natural compounds such as nerol from tea flowers, n-octanol from intact tea shoots, and geraniol, methyl salicylate, benzaldehyde, and hexanal from aphid-damaged tea shoots.

At Entomological Society of America (ESA) annual meetingss, California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) officials report that T. Kanzawa’s 1939 translation of Professor Dr. Shonen Matsumura‘s 1931 book, 6000 Illustrated Insects of Japan-Empire, is still used to help with identification and control of invasive insect pests like the dusky-winged fruit fly (Drosophila suzukii). Oregon entomologist Jana Lee told the ESA that the Japanese get 100% fruit fly protection by placing 0.98 mm (0.04 inch) mesh over blueberries 20 days pre-harvest. After the harvest, 100% of fruit fly eggs and newly hatched larvae on cherries are killed by holding the fruit at 1.6-2.2 C (29-36 F). In Japanese experiments, fruit fly egg laying in cherries was reduced 30-60% with botanicals such as eucalyptus, neem, and tansy. In other promising Japanese research, Kotaro Konno and Hiroshi Ono told the ESA that latex from the same mulberry leaves used to safely grow silkworms since ancient times could be an effective botanical insecticide against other pests.

Since the 1920s, the USDA has been importing Japanese and Korean biocontrol organisms, like Tiphia wasps to control Oriental beetles and Japanese beetles attacking golf courses, turf, crops, and landscape ornamentals. Japan is currently patenting decoy tree technologies to help stop an explosive outbreak of oak wilt fungus (Raffaelea quercivora), caused by mass attacks of ambrosia beetles (Platypus quercivorus), said Masahiko Tokoro of the Forestry and Forest Products Research Institute (FFPRI) in Ibaraki, Japan (See earlier blog post: The Asian Invasion -Insects in Global Trade).

In South Korean greenhouse tests, Sangwon Kim and Un Taek Lim of Andong National University told the ESA of greenhouse tests showing the superiority of yellow circles against a black background versus conventional rectangular yellow sticky traps for capturing pesky whiteflies and thrips. “In laboratory behavioral studies using different backgrounds and shapes, yellow sticky card with black background was 1.8 times more attractive than sticky card without background, and triangle attracted 1.5 times more sweetpotato whitefly (Bemisia tabaci) than square,” said Kim. Black sticky cards with small yellow circles caught 180% more sweetpotato whitefly than cards with larger circles.

Compost for Sustainable Soil Fertility & Disease Suppression

July 24, 2010

ABOUT A THIRD of farm energy used for food growing supplies fertility. In Florida alone, the energy used to manufacture the 2 million tons of food crop fertilizer each year equals the energy content of 100 million gallons of diesel fuel. Thus, recycling or composting waste materials into fertilizers and mulches can save energy while reducing pollution and enhancing human and crop health.

In the book Farmers of Forty Centuries; Or, Permanent Agriculture in China, Korea and Japan, early-1900s agricultural scientist Franklin Hiram King observed amazing levels of soil productivity where rural and urban human wastes were recycled back to the land and farmers planted legume (e.g. soybean; adzuki bean; clover) and other green manure cover crops and crop rotations.

“Japanese society once faced the prospect of collapse due to environmental degradation, and the fact that it did not is what makes it such an instructive example,” writes Azby Brown in his 2010 book, Just Enough: Lessons in Living Green from Traditional Japan. “Japan entered the Edo period in 1603 facing extreme difficulties in obtaining building timber, suffering erosion and watershed damage due to having clear-cut so many of its mountains for lumber, and virtually unable to expand agricultural production…All the more remarkable, then, that 200 years later the same land was supporting 30 million people-2.5 times the population…Deforestation had been halted and reversed, farmland improved and made more productive, conservation implemented…Overall living standards had increased, and the people were better fed, housed, and clothed, and they were healthier. By any objective standard, it was a remarkable feat, arguably unequalled anywhere else, before or since.”

Human waste, euphemistically called night soil, became a valuable soil fertility commodity in old Japan. Perhaps not quite worth its weight in gold, but a valuable commodity bought, sold, traded, and transported long distances from cities to farms. Rather than causing cholera and other diseases by entering the water supply as was common in European cities of the same era, sanitation and composting blessed Japan with multiple dividends. Considerable energy was “expended on toilet design to allow these waste products to be easily collected and processed,” writes Brown. This has culminated in modern dry composting toilets that “by allowing natural composting heat to occur inside a well-ventilated compartment…turn human waste into a dry, nearly odorless compound that looks and feels like peat moss.”

Farmers in old Japan spent their own money to “build toilets and urinals along well-traveled roads for public use, in the hopes of increasing their yields of fertilizer.” Contrast this with the modern difficulty of finding a decent, well-maintained public toilet along roadsides or in cities. China, says Brown, “is poised to become the global leader in composting toilets, partly because relatively few communities are served by the sewer infrastructure and the government is promoting these new designs as an attractive alternative that will help mitigate its freshwater problems as well.”

In the modern Western world, scientists in Germany and the USA have advanced the conversion of animal manures and green plant wastes into composts and tea sprays that boost plant growth and suppress pests. Though long a staple of biodynamics and organic gardening, in the 1980s University of Bonn researchers like Heinrich Weltzien, Andreas Trankner and Ketterer provided experimental proof that watery compost tea sprays high in beneficial microbes reduced powdery mildew on grapes and late blight disease on potatoes. Indeed, in some experiments compost tea sprays formulated from grape marc, earthworm compost, and animal manures equalled synthetic fungicides.

In the USA, in 1969 reports surfaced that some Ohio nursery growers had conquered root rot diseases in rhododendrons, cyclamens, and other ornamentals using pine bark composts and no longer needed methyl bromide soil fumigations. Ohio State University’s Harry Hoitink embarked on scientific studies of this phenomena. To reliably control the plant pathogens causing root rots and other soil diseases, hardwood bark composts were aged like fine wines for 6-12 months or fortified with special biocontrol microbes. In Australia, eucalyptus bark is similarly composted to combat Pythium and Phytophthora root rot pathogens in container or potted plant soils and avocado orchards.

Insect pests can also be controlled with composts. For example, Cornell entomologists like Michael Villani and Roxanne Broadway stopped white grub beetle larvae from attacking turf and lawns using crude proteins extracted from composted leaves and kitchen food wastes. Composted chicken manure and feathers worked best against caterpillars (moth larvae). Cornell University’s Eric Nelson and others have spent years formulating composts to combat root rots on golf greens and maladies like dollar spot and brown patch.

It may take a year or two of aging to brew the right combination of pest-suppressive beneficial microbes in composts. In Japan, composted golf course grass clippings are specially inoculated with a strain of the beneficial bacteria Bacillus subtilis to hasten suppression of the fungus Rhizoctonia solani on golf courses.

However, compost is not always a quick cure. For example, several years of compost applications are needed to control soybean cyst nematodes in agricultural fields or to restore Japanese forest soils. That is because plant ecosystems are complex adapative systems.