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14.1: Scientist Spotlight - Anurag Agrawal

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    During summer 2021, social media users may have noticed a brief spotlight shone on the invasive spotted lanternfly. This beautiful bug feeds on a wide array of lumber/silviculturally valuable trees, and officials have encouraged people to squash them on site. There may be ecological and evolutionary history explaining the spread of the spotted lanternfly in the United States. The story of the viburnum leaf beetle, revealed by ecologist Anurag Agrawal, may shed some light on this phenomenon.

    The invasive viburnum leaf beetle has wreaked havoc on species of Viburnum shrub in the Northeastern United States by eating their leaves and laying eggs on their twigs. However, this antagonistic relationship did not always mean decimation for species of Viburnum shrub. Some Viburnum species share evolutionary history with the beetle, and this translates into an astonishing mechanism of plant defense. Anurag Agrawal is an ecologist at Cornell University studying the ecology and evolution of plant-insect interactions. His lab discovered the aforementioned evolutionary defense mechanism- old-world Viburnum shrubs crushing beetle eggs. Insect herbivory incites something called an “evolutionary arms race”, where the plant evolves defense mechanisms to avoid predation, the insect evolves in response to evolutionary pressure imposed by that defense mechanism, and the race goes back and forth as each party tries to ‘out-evolve’ the other. This is also called the “red queen hypothesis.” In contrast, North American Viburnum species did not coevolve with the beetle. While they mount the same defense response as their old-world cousins, it is distinctly weaker. This “convergent continental difference” in defense response is one of many plant-insect interactions Agrawal has studied in relation to evolution.

    Dr. Agrawal shared that “In general Asian-Americans are well-represented in STEM, but less so in ecology and evolution.” He rarely thinks of himself as under-represented, but “Recognizing this has occasionally brought out an important insight.” 


    beetle.jpeg                                     Anurag_agrawal_with_Asclepias_welshii.jpg

                             “Viburnum leaf beetle” by Eltore Balocchi is licensed under CC BY 2.0.                    “Anurag Agrawal with Asclepias welshii” by Anuragagrawal99 is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.



    Spotlight inspiration from Project Biodiversify

    Project Biodiversify. Anurag Agrawal: Seed-eating moths had dramatic impacts on plant ecology and evolution. <>. Accessed September 21, 2021.

    14.1: Scientist Spotlight - Anurag Agrawal is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.