RIVERSIDE, Calif. – Cockroaches are scientifically interesting to study. A primitive, yet highly diverse group of insects, they live in a wide range of habitats — such as temperate habitats, tropical habitats, deserts, in the nests of birds and social insects, sewers and dumpsites — and exhibit a variety of reproductive strategies. They are also major pests. They can spread disease and serve as a major source of allergens that can cause asthma.
Coby Schal, an international expert in urban entomology, will give the 2015 Alfred M. Boyce Lecture at the University of California, Riverside on Monday, June 1, on the topic of cockroaches, specifically their aversion to sugar. The lecture is presented by the UC RiversideDepartment of Entomology.
Titled “The Bitter-sweet Science of Sugar Aversion in Cockroaches: Rapid Sensory Adaptations to Anthropogenic Pressure,” the free public talk will begin at 4:10 p.m. in the auditorium in the Genomics Building. Parking information can be found here. A reception at 5 p.m. in the lobby of the Entomology Buildingwill follow the talk.
“While some insect species are beneficial, such as the honey bee, others, like the German cockroach, can be serious pests,” said Schal, who is the Blanton J. Whitmire Distinguished Professor of Structural Pest Management and co-founder of the W. M. Keck Center for Behavioral Biology at North Carolina State University. “Insects that have evolved to be commensal and even parasitic on humans have also evolved an amazing repertoire of behavioral and physiological mechanisms to thwart our attempts to eradicate them. Glucose aversion in the German cockroach is such a mechanism. It is just one small salvo by the cockroach in our ongoing arms race with them.”
The science of sugar aversion in cockroaches has implications for pest control as well as basic science and evolutionary biology.
“The agrochemical industry is already incorporating other sugars into insecticide bait formulations so that cockroaches accept them,” Schal said. “Cockroaches have an amazing associative learning capacity. They learn to associate aversive tastants with odors that emanate from the bait and therefore avoid the bait altogether.”
In experiments done in the lab, Schal’s research group found that glucose-averse cockroaches have not lost the ability to taste glucose as sweet. Instead, they recruited it to drive a new adaptive behavior.
“This is very exciting and highlights how plastic the sensory system is to adapt to rapid environmental changes,” Schal said. “Our research is the first in any animal to show that mutations in the taste system have resulted in the emergence of a new adaptive behavior and to identify the basis of this novel behavior as a reversal in the taste modality of a common sugar.”
Schal received his B.S. in biology from the State University of New York at Albany and his Ph.D. in entomology from the University of Kansas, and has held appointments as an assistant and associate professor at Rutgers University, NJ. Through the years, his work has taken an integrative approach to investigating urban entomology, involving behavioral endocrinology, chemical ecology, insect physiology, toxicology and integrated pest management.
Known for his ground-breaking work on cockroach bait resistance and its heritability, Schal has authored and co-authored more than 250 peer-reviewed articles and book chapters on insect biology, olfaction and control. He has served on the editorial boards of Archives of Insect Biochemistry and Physiology, Journal of Chemical Ecology, Journal of Economic Entomology, Journal of Insect Science, and Psyche: A Journal of Entomology.
His research program is notable for combining fundamental and applied biology through his pioneering studies on the chemical communication of pests. He was elected fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (2006), the Entomological Society of America (2006), and has received many honors, such as the Silverstein-Simeone Award from the International Society for Chemical Ecology.
The Boyce lectures were instituted in 1977 and honor Alfred M. Boyce (1901-1997), one of the world’s leading authorities on insects and mites that attack citrus and walnuts. Boyce served as the director of the UCR Citrus Experiment Station, first dean of the College of Agriculture, and assistant director of the statewide Agricultural Experiment Station.