Managing thrips-caused crop losses, educating future scientists

Up close and personal: Thrips are typically 1 mm long (about the width of a sharpened pencil lead!) and have fringed wings.

PROSSER, Wash.– Thrips may be tiny, but the insects cause billions of dollars in damage to crops each year, which is why Washington State University is part of a five-year, $3.75 million project to study the insects’ role in virus transmission and strategies for pest management.

Specifically, the multi-institutional, multi-disciplinary research team is generating new knowledge on thrips-transmitted tospoviruses— infectious agents that spread and cause damage to a variety of crops, to wilt and eventually die. Tospoviruses also damage quality of fruits and vegetables produced by their infected plants, said Naidu Rayapati, a researcher at the WSU Irrigated Agriculture Research and Extension Center in Prosser and a co-principal investigator on the USDA grant. Before joining WSU in 2004, Rayapati worked with tospoviruses at the University of Georgia and at the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics.

“One part of the project is to look at the epidemiology of diseases caused by tospoviruses, especially the role of vectors (carriers) in the spread of these viruses at the fundamental level,” Rayapati said. “We’d like to study how these viruses spread and contribute to the evolution of new strains. For example, can a single insect acquire and transmit two viruses to the same plant simultaneously?”

Naidu Rayapati, plant pathologist and co-PI on the USDA grant, will help train future scientists and gather knew knowledge about thrips-damage to agricultural crops.
Naidu Rayapati, plant pathologist and co-PI on the USDA grant, will help train future scientists about thrips-damage to agricultural crops.

The project will focus on areas in California and the southeastern U.S. where thrips damage is most severe and causes major crop-loss. The collaboration includes entomologists, plant pathologists, molecular breeders, and extension faculty from UC Davis, Kansas State University, North Carolina State University, Cornell University, University of Georgia and the USDA-ARS U.S. Horticultural Research Laboratory. Rayapati said the team is also interested in understanding how management techniques applied in one region might work in another.

“As a team we are bringing different expertise to bear on a common problem,” Rayapati said. “We hope to generate appropriate knowledge of thrips and tospoviruses and come up with improved strategies that can really help provide management of thrips-transmitted tospoviruses to multiple crops in different regions.”

Rayapati said he is also actively recruiting graduate students and undergraduate students, with an emphasis on students from minority communities in the Yakima valley, to begin work on the project for summer and fall 2013.

“This project has an extension component in terms of working with the stakeholders to convey science-based information for practical applications, but what we are also focusing on is training the next generation of scientists,” he said.

The grant is funded through the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative, United States Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture with $670,000 allotted to WSU.