Universities collaborate to create new Behavioral Plasticity Research Institute (BPRI)

ASU to join six other universities to create an institute to better understand locust phase change.

As a formidable ecological force, locusts have a long history of devastating crops and causing food insecurity throughout history and around the world. A secret to their success—dubbed phase polyphenism—is a textbook case of phenotypic plasticity where an individual can modify its phenotype in response to a changing environment. Locusts can capitalize on times of plenty by altering their morphology, physiology, and behavior as they shift from a cryptic and solitary lifestyle to a mobile and gregarious one. This ultimately results in the dramatic outbreaks with swarms of billions of individuals we are seeing currently on multiple continents.

The newly created Behavioral Plasticity Research Institute (BPRI) will mobilize a broad effort that will greatly enhance our understanding of the complex phenomenon of locust phase change from molecules to landscapes. Funded by a five-year, $12.5 million National Science Foundation grant, the new institution will incorporate research expertise and cutting-edge techniques from Arizona State University, Baylor College of Medicine, the University of California Davis, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, Texas A&M University, and Washington University in St. Louis. The team will work within an evolutionary framework using technology, such as CRISPR/Cas9 and other genetics tools to provide extensive, publicly-available molecular resources such as high-quality annotated genomes and transcriptomes for several locusts and grasshoppers species.

“Unlocking the secrets of the complex feedback loop stretching from a locust’s genome to its ecological interactions will help us more sustainably manage them,” says Rick Overson Research Coordinator of the Global Locust Initiative and senior personnel at BPRI.

locusts perched on twigs
©FAO/Sven Torfinn. Editorial use only. Copyright FAO

The ASU-based Global Locust Initiative Lab will house many of the live locust and grasshopper colonies for the broader research effort in its state-of-the-art rearing facilities. The ASU team, led by Dr. Arianne Cease, and in collaboration with Dr. Brittany Petterson from the BugGuts lab at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville (SIUE), will focus on questions surrounding the ecological context of locust phase polyphenism. This team will explore the connections between the nutritional ecology of locusts, the symbiotic community in their guts, and their ability to undergo phase change with its resultant energetic demands.

“The BugGuts lab is on a mission to understand the complex and intricate interactions insects have with their microbial associates. We’re excited to collaborate with the research teams involved in BPRI and to contribute a microbial perspective to locust physiology and ecology,” says Dr. Peterson.

Due to the logistical challenges of locating and researching outbreaking hoppers on the move in the field, most research on locust phase change is lab-based—which leaves out a critical piece of the puzzle—how locusts interact with their natural environment. However, the team at ASU will leverage the Global Locust Network to coordinate the complex field logistics required to research outbreaking locusts in real-time.

Locust outbreaks are a complex transboundary challenge that requires coordination across boundaries, sectors, and disciplines. This ‘integration through collaboration’ approach is supported through the visions of the GLI and BPRI, which recognize that scientific and societal impacts are maximized when groups of people with diverse backgrounds and experiences work together towards shared goals and the common good. Through the Institute, a cohort of early-career researchers will be trained across disciplines, institutions, and techniques, to produce integrative scientists prepared to deal with the multi-faceted challenges brought about by locust outbreaks. Outcomes will be translated into real-world applications through the Global Locust Network.

There will be 12 fully-funded graduate assistantships to start in Fall 2021, each with support for up to five years. Prospective students will apply to the graduate programs of the participating universities (BPRI grad opportunities: details) to work with one or more BPRI researchers as their main PI(s).
Learn more here.

More information about BPRI and collaborating universities:

New institute to study behavioral plasticity in locusts
New institute to study behavioral plasticity in locusts to support sustainable food systems
Universities join forces to understand locust swarming