Project Number: 3020-43000-034-019-S
Project Type: Non-Assistance Cooperative Agreement
Start Date: Aug 15, 2022
End Date: Aug 14, 2026
ARS PI is part of an ARS Grand Challenges program that develops insects for the feed industry. Farmed insects are particularly susceptible to pathogens because of mass rearing of large numbers in closed confines. One of the more commonly farmed insects is the yellow mealworm, and while there are studies on the mealworm immune system, data is needed on mealworm immunity related to mass rearing for downstream feed applications. In preparation for this project, the PI has sequenced the genome and obtained a genome assembly for functional studies of the immune system. Collaborator is an expert in the study of insect immunity and will lead student research to determine biological pathways and factors that contribute to immune responses in the mealworm in response to potential pathogens. Current NIH-funded research on blood-feeding arthropods by the cooperator will be adapted to mealworm immunity research, identifying molecular mechanisms of hemolymph proteins that mediate innate immune responses in insects. These data will be used to inform mealworm farmers of best practices for mass rearing, and to develop diagnostic tools for potential pathogens as well as potential prophylactics to prevent disease or treat outbreaks. The data from these studies will be used as a basis to identify similar biological mechanisms other farmed mealworms and coleopteran insects.
ARS PI has developed a high throughput sequencing approach to identify potential pathogens in insects. She evaluates short read sequencing data in bioinformatic programs that have extensive pathogen databases (Kraken2) to identify microbial reads and validates results with alignment of potential reads with reference sequences. She also has developed genetic/genomic resources for stored product insects, including the yellow mealworm. Cooperator has extensive research experience in insect immune system and is a world leader in the field. His current NIH-funded research will be adapted to study mealworm hemolymph proteins that mediate immunity. Proposed research will combine the cooperator’s expertise and the genetic tools for mealworm research developed by the ARS PI to guide student-led research to identify pathogens in mass-reared mealworms and to identify responses in mealworms to pathogens. Research will include the following experimental approach: 1. DNA and RNA sequencing and bioinformatics to identify potential pathogens in the yellow mealworm from mass-reared facilities and field collected samples. 2. Study the mealworm immune response to pathogens using gene expression studies (RNA-Seq) and biochemical studies. 3. Perform population genomic studies of mealworms from different geographical and presumably distinct genetic backgrounds to understand complexities in the immunogenetics of mealworm populations and relating the data to mass-reared insects for the agricultural feed industry.