The project, funded by the Natural Environment Research Council, will study the grain-infesting Indian meal moth (
and a virus it carries that is sometimes deadly to its host and sometimes not.
Dr Steve Sait from the University of Leeds and Professor Rosie Hails from the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology hope to understand what criteria trigger the virus to become lethal. The work could help provide better ways to manage pests and invasive species.
The Indian meal moth is a significant problem around the world, attacking harvested crops such as cereals, rice, nuts and seeds and manufactured foods such as chocolate.
The Indian meal moth virus uses two forms of virus transmission - vertical and horizontal. The virus is passed ‘vertically’ from parent to offspring, but ‘horizontally’ through contact between infected and healthy caterpillars in the same generation.
As vertical transmission requires the host to be alive to reproduce, it is used by non-lethal forms of the virus and can continue even when host population levels are low.
Lethal forms - which kill a large percentage of the host caterpillars - use horizontal transmission and require population levels to be high enough for it to spread. But how does the virus know when to change its methods?
Dr Steve Sait, Reader in Ecology at Leeds’ Faculty of Biological Sciences, explains: “Moths and butterflies tend to have population peaks every few years and in between, survive with more limited numbers. Viruses should use vertical transmission when population density is low, but during population peaks, the same viruses can become more virulent and use horizontal transmission.
“We believe that changes in the host insects’ physiology, perhaps caused by greater competition for food as populations increase in number, may be one of the main triggers for this switch between lethal and non-lethal forms.”
The researchers will be studying the Indian meal moth and its virus in the laboratory under controlled conditions, to determine how population levels and food availability impact on virus transmission and how deadly it is. The fast-living moth populations live in microcosms of the real world, which allows the team to collect data that might otherwise take an entire research career.
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Julie Aspden, Royal Society (Apr 2018), £20,000
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Scott Bowen, Leducq Foundation Grant (Feb 2018), £28,470
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Dave Lewis and Colleagues in South Africa, HEFCE Global Challenge Research (Jan 2018), £48,000
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Jennifer Tomlinson, Royal Society (Jan 2018), £512,801
Alison Dunn, NERC (Dec 2017), £18,000
Jennifer Tomlinson, Royal Society-Research Fellows Enhancement Award (Dec 2017), £94,681
Helen Miller, AB AGri Grant (Dec 2017), £73,600
Simon Walker, Royal Society Enhancement Award (Dec 2017), £10,000
Carrie Ferguson, Bryan Taylor, Harry Rossiter, The Physiological Society (Dec 2017), £7,392
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Christine Foyer, British Council Newton Fund (Dec 2017), £49,840
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Amanda Bretman and colleagues from UEA, NERC (Oct 2017), £430,886
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Ralf Richter, David Brockwell, Eric Hewitt, Jessica Kwok, Emanuele Paci and MAPS/FMH, BBSRC (Jun 2017), £600,000
Eric Blair, Adrian Whitehouse, Nicola Stonehouse, Alison Baker, Richard Bayliss, Joan Boyes, Ryan Seipke, Sally Boxall and MAPS/FMH, BBSRC (Jun 2017), £376,000
Stefan Kepinski, Yoselin Benitez-Alfonso, Tom Bennett, Michelle Peckham, BBSRC (Jun 2017), £331,000
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