Insects love to mate, says University of Guelph professor Peter Krell.

He will use that fact of bug life – along with new Genome Canada funding announced today – for studies intended ultimately to yield a pioneering “antenna in a box” for battling invasive insects that threaten to devastate parts of Canada’s multibillion-dollar forestry sector and that are already wreaking havoc in cityscapes in southern Ontario, including Guelph.

Prof. Peter Krell

The professor in the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology will receive $234,000 over two years to develop a new genomics approach for identifying harmful insects, including the emerald ash borer. Lacking natural predators and parasites in Ontario, the invasive pest has swept through numerous ash stands since arriving in Windsor in 2002.

The funding comes from Genome Canada’s “Disruptive Innovation in Genomics” program and was announced today during an event in Montreal.

“Professor Krell’s research is fascinating and innovative,” said Malcolm Campbell, vice-president (research).

“He is using genomics to develop sophisticated solutions to current and future problems with invasive insect pests, which will improve lives by protecting our natural resources and our economy.”

Pest insects cost hundreds of millions of dollars a year in lost harvests for the Canadian forestry industry, which exports more than $30 billion worth of forest products every year.

It costs almost $900 million a year to manage emerald ash borer in Ontario and Quebec by removing diseased trees and applying insecticides, said Krell.

His approach will piggyback on insects’ natural use of sex pheromones released by females to attract mates.

Male antennae contain odorant receptors for hundreds of specific pheromones and other chemicals that not only help them find mates but also enable them to find food or avoid predators. Air-borne sex pheromones bind to specific receptors in a lock-and-key mechanism, and prompt the male to seek out the female.

Scientists from the Great Lakes Forestry Centre (GLFC) in Sault Ste. Marie have identified only a few odorant receptors in the emerald ash borer. Krell plans to identify the pertinent chemicals and others, and use that information to develop a simple diagnostic test.

In his U of G lab, he’s culturing lines of odorant receptor cells engineered with a protein that lights up in the presence of particular pheromones. “You don’t need a microscope to look for the pheromone,” he says. “You just look for fluorescence. What happens here mimics what happens in the antenna.”

Krell said plenty of engineering needs to happen before his cell culture system could be deployed in nature to attract and detect insects. But Krell said foresters could ultimately use such a system to detect pests before they cause an infestation, allowing more time to react. “If the antenna in a box lights up, then we know the insect is there.”

Currently, foresters rely on spotting the minute insects or the resulting tree damage. “By the time you identify the insects or the damage, it’s too late.”

He will work with longtime research partner Daniel Doucet and Jeremy Allison, both at the GLFC.

“What is significant in this Genome Canada award is that it recognizes the role of basic research in addressing a real-world problem, and that collaborations among scientists or institutions are an effective way to realize that,” Krell said.

The researchers also plan to look at the Asian long-horned beetle, another invasive wood-boring species that attacks maples and other broadleaf trees.

Krell said the same approach might be used to detect species of mosquitoes known to carry the Zika virus. That’s a looming human health problem as the carrier species – originally from South America and the southern United States — moves further north into Canada.

“With climate change, such insects are sure to extend their range to Canada including the diseases they carry, so it is imperative to provide an early warning system should they arrive. Our research should help provide such an early warning system,” he said.