Speakers to discuss hungry plants, explosive beetles and the scent of fear

Science on Tap event explores insects’ chemical weapons, their uses in agricultural innovations and more

Speaking of weird science, insects and plants use a range of weapons and tools for defense and growth. You can hear more at October's Science on Tap. Credit: Public Domain PicturesAll Rights Reserved.

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Interactions between insects, predators and plants may be difficult to observe, but they contain powerful clues to how we could save our crops and natural spaces. Enter the world of entomology, where plants and beetles are the masters of natural chemical weapons and the risk of being eaten is real.

Tanya Renner and Sara Hermann, both assistant professors in entomology at Penn State, will explain more about the wild world of insects at this month’s Science on Tap, which will take place at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 15, at the Federal Tap House in downtown State College.

The researchers will offer insights into questions about insects and their environment, such as: What is the impact of predation on insects, and what does this mean for nature and agriculture? How do plants repurpose defense genes to acquire nutrients, and which genes are key for insect defense?

Renner will introduce her laboratory’s research into the evolution of carnivorous-plant digestive enzymes and toxic beetle compounds, each of which influence interactions among organisms (plant-insects and insect-predator). Hermann will discuss the ways predatory insects can affect their prey (without even eating them) and how insect behavior and chemical ecology can help us manipulate pests in agriculture and beyond.

Renner’s research program examines the underlying genetics and evolution of chemical and structural defense. Her program seeks to understand how plants and insects acquire novel phenotypes through co-option of existing genes, tissues and organs. Renner’s research has broad implications for understanding how plants repurpose defense genes for nutrient acquisition, and which genes are key players in the formation of compounds important for insect defense.

Hermann became interested in the wonderful world of bugs when she worked on an honors thesis in an entomology laboratory during her bachelor’s degree program in environmental science and policy at the University of South Florida. Combining a desire for sustainable agriculture with the realization that insects cause severe damage to our crops she went on to earn both a master’s and doctoral degrees in entomology from Cornell and Michigan State universities examining the ecology pf predator-prey interactions in cropping systems.

At Penn State, Hermann's lab is focused on insect behavior and trophic interactions, mainly between herbivorous insects and their arthropod predators in agroecosystems. Much of her work focuses on the under-appreciated role that predation risk has on insect ecology, which has importance in both natural and agricultural systems.

Arrive early as seats are limited.

About Science on Tap

The event is part of the monthly Science on Tap series, which is designed to allow informal discussions between leading Penn State researchers and members of the public. Attendees are reminded that they must be 21 years of age, or older, to attend.

Science on Tap is presented by the Science Policy Society, a graduate-student-run organization that aims to teach researchers about the connection between their research and public policy. For more information, visit the society’s website.

Last Updated October 09, 2019