ForumLaying the Groundwork With Basic Research
Some might say that basic biological research should be more the province
of academia than of a government agency like the Agricultural
Research Service. But basic research often provides the starting
point, the groundwork for all other work, including research that deals
with problems affecting the country's agriculture.
When a new pest appears, if scientists can't at least come up with
an accurate name and some basic facts about the organism's place in
the environment, it is going to be hard for any other studies to get
off the ground. For example, knowing where an insect originated and
having some information on its relationship to other species is often
the first step in understanding what kind of problem it will be and
how a control can be devised for it.
Developing this kind of fundamental information is not a job you want
to have to do after the insect becomes a problem for farmers and ranchers.
If we wait to study an insect until there is a crisis, it can take months
or years to pull together the necessary basic information to get control
programs up and running. In the meantime, damage can be accumulating,
diseases may be spread, and export markets for a U.S. commodity could
be lost. Being a step ahead can make the difference between a crisis
and a problem with a solution.
This means basic research must be done on an ongoing basis, always
building our reservoir of knowledge so we are ready to respond. When
you know where an insect comes from, you have a much better idea of
where to start looking for its natural enemies that could be biological
controls or where in the United States it might be the biggest threat.
It can come as a surprise that despite centuries of research by biologists
and taxonomists, we don't already have a full catalog of this country's
insects, let alone those that inhabit other parts of the planet. In
contrast, most species of North American birds have entire volumes dedicated
to their life histories, with everything from how many eggs they lay
to the insects on which they prefer to dine. But the vast majority of
the small, often inconspicuous creatures that make up the insect genera
remain pretty much unknown. For probably 90 percent of those that we
do knowthat is, they have at least been namedwe often know
little beyond where the specimen was found. This is in spite of the
fact that pests and invasive species cause tens of billions of dollars
in damage each year.
That's why ARS considers basic research like that of entomologists
Shoil Greenberg, Allan Showler, and Thomas Sappington so important.
They are studying which plants a beet armyworm prefers for egg laying.
It is the first step toward the applied research of finding a better
way to controlling this major cotton pest. You can read more about their
research on page 20 of this issue.
One of the world's leaders in building databases of basic information
about insects is ARS' Systematic Entomology Laboratory, with facilities
at the Henry A. Wallace Beltsville (Maryland) Agricultural Research
Center and at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. The lab
is profiled on page 4.
SEL scientists concentrate on insect groups they expect could be trouble
for U.S. agriculture, so when something shows up, the basic information
is already available for the scientists charged with dealing with the
problem. They are also the experts to whom everyone from evolutionary
biologists to forensic scientists turn when help is needed with an insect
Some of SEL's most important customers are the federal officials responsible
for agricultural quarantine. They look to SEL not only for identification
of strange insects that try to enter the country, but also for information
about potential biocontrols from foreign countries before deciding whether
to issue importation and release permits.
Today, ARS scientists at our locations around the country are applying
the newest, high-tech research methods alongside traditional techniques
of studying pests, like the researchers profiled on page 9, who are
uncovering the most basic level of information about the Varroa
mite. They are developing a genetic profile of this mite in hopes it
will pay off in a new way to stop this devastating pest of honey bees.
Basic and applied research have become more integrated as we develop a deeper understanding of the relationships between the complex components of our environmentsoil, water, air, and all living creatures, including ourselves. Research into the most basic processes of biology and ecology will provide keys for advances not yet even imagined.
Robert M. Faust
"Forum" was published in the June 2002 issue of Agricultural Research magazine.