If you’ve ever been skunked by a stinkbug, you know exactly how powerful insect communications can be.

Insects use a variety of pheromones and other compounds to communicate with one another and ward off predators. Scientists are only beginning to understand how some of these communications emerge.

A multidisciplinary team of researchers from Virginia Tech, Rutgers, and SRI International has received a $1.4 million grant from the National Science Foundation to delve deeper into a particularly rich set of communication compounds called terpenes.

“We understand the basics of how terpenes function — all organisms produce them — but we want to understand the specific chemical grammar, if you will, of how terpenes work for each insect species,” said Dorothea Tholl, professor in the Department of Biological Sciences in the College of Science at Virginia Tech.

Insects use terpenes to communicate with one another across long distances, either to call in mates, for aggregation, or to warn away fellow insects from danger. Terpenes are excellent molecules for this purpose, as they are volatile and can travel unaltered over distances for long-range communication.

Tholl and her team will work on building the family tree of insect chemical communication genes. They will map gene evolution to insect diversification and specialization, attempting to uncover the evolutionary signatures of chemical diversity in insect communication.

“We hope this will ultimately lead to a chemical lexicon for insects, a Rosetta Stone of insect communication,” said Tholl.

To tackle this challenge, SRI International will computationally design the same gene lineage that likely gave rise to modern insect chemical communication genes by pinpointing critical interaction networks in protein structure. Virginia Tech will experimentally test these predictions and illuminate the structures of variants at atomic-scale resolution.

Rutgers, in turn, will use the resulting data to create biophysical and fitness landscapes that provide a map of viable pathways underlying the emergence of chemical communication, a map that also serves as a generalizable framework for other enzyme families.

All of this work will help establish blueprints for models of the evolutionary origins of chemical communication among insects.

The applications of such research have the potential to revolutionize the way we farm and treat crops for insect pests. It’s hoped that synthetic terpenoids could be produced that would repel bugs away from important crops; one is already being tested with aphids. Plant traps could also be engineered that would lure bugs toward them and away from crops. This would be an alternative to current pesticides, which can be problematic because insects can easily develop resistance to them.

In 2020 and 2021, as part of the grant, an educational installation will take place in the Cube at Moss Arts Center that will allow visitors to experience the world as insects do with respect to scent and chemical communication. Visitors will be able to peer into the very origins of how the scent producing enzymes are made and understand the complexities of communicating via scent.

As summarized by Paul O’Maille from SRI International, “by unraveling the emergence of a chemical language system in insects, we hope to gain important insights into biological success – how nature continually reinvents itself at the molecular level to acquire new traits that shape organisms, populations, and ecosystems.”

-Written by Tiffany Trent