A spotted lanternfly plucked from a tree near the Pagoda last year is making waves through the national bug research community.
Her (it was a female insect) DNA is the first to be sequenced in a ground-breaking new process that researchers say could be a key in winning the fight against her species and many other invasive bugs.
The news was reported Oct. 14 in the journal Gigascience.
The lanternfly was plucked from a tree (her favorite kind, a tree of heaven) across from the Pagoda on Mount Penn by Julie Urban, a Penn State University entomology researcher on Aug, 26, 2018, the report said.
Sequencing the spotted lanternfly genome can help researchers understand its biology and behavior better so that they can develop control methods, said Scott M. Geib, a researcher for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agriculture Research Service lab in Hilo, Hawaii.
Urban and Geib said this new method of sequencing is significant because it is faster and less expensive. It could lead to rapid breakthroughs but a method for slowing the lanternfly's spread is several years away, Urban said.
The new research marks the first time all of the DNA required to generate a whole genome sequence was taken from a single "caught-in-the-wild" insect, the ARS said. The challenge in deciphering the spotted lanternfly's genome is its length and complexity. Typically, the process would involve raising a colony of insects so that scientists could do several sequencing runs to pool the results. Raising colonies can take months and even years to establish. Urban said the insect is especially hard to raise and breed in captivity in part because it's such a voracious eater.
Geib and Urban collaborated with five other reserachers to use a new sequencing platform by designed by Pacific Biosciences, a Menlo Park, Calif. company. The platform enabled them to use a single specimen.
It gives promise to the national effort to thwart other invasive species such as the brown marmorated stink bug, said Geib, who works on the USDA's Ag100Pest project targeting the top destructive invaders.
Here is a video produced by ARS explaining the recent research.
The lanternfly, a native of China, Bangladesh and Vietnam, was first discovered in Berks County in 2014 and has spread to Virginia, Delaware, Maryland and New Jersey. Fourteen counties in Pennsylvania are now under a quarantine.
The pest poses a threat to economically important crops including almonds, apples, apricots, grapes, peaches, blueberries and hops as well as hardwoods such as oak, walnut and poplar. It poses no direct danger to humans.
Urban collected a few spotted lanternflies for the research and immediately dropped them in liquid nitrogen to keep their genetic material from deteriorating.
In December, Geib received about a half-dozen frozen adult spotted lanternflies but needed just one for the research. He extracted the material from its head and thorax and sent it to PacBio, where it was sequenced using the new platform, a combination of a machine and software that essentially is able to separate the mom and dad DNA of a fly into long sequences.
Geib was also able to extract and sequence two bacteria inside the insect that are vital to its survival. This may provide additional opportunities to control the pest. The researchers posed a control strategy involving that bacteria during the female's growth right before egg laying in October.
Urban said the process provides a foundation for researchers to hone in on aspects of the genes that they can manipulate or exploit to thwart the pest's spread.
"There's still a lot more work to be done,"Urban said.
Finding genetic markers will "inform us as to where our spotted lanternfly originated, and things along those lines," she said. "It could also help us to better estimate the size of the current spotted lanternfly population."
Finding better ways to control the insect using genomics-based tools will take longer.
"Because spotted lanternfly is so difficult to rear in a laboratory much of the work can be done only when it is active in the field, so only with one generation per year," Urban said. "That means that it will take several years to see big breakthroughs but multiple labs are currently working to try to develop sustainable spotted lanternfly lab colonies."