As an undergraduate entomology major, Will Kandalaft ’21 worked as a research assistant in the lab of Robert Raguso, professor of neurobiology and behavior. Raguso helped revolutionize his field by emphasizing and categorizing the role of scent in plant-insect interactions and evolutionary biology. Now, Raguso and Kandalaft are part of the team that has discovered another critical element in plant-pollinator communication: humidity. Kandalaft is a co-author on two groundbreaking studies that document that insects are attracted to plants as much by humidity as by scent.
Here, he talks about his contributions to the novel research.
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"Me and my mom in the Corson Mudd Raguso Lab Greenhouse. I'm holding up a fresh cut Datura flower. She is worried that its stinky nectar will drip on her. Despite the flowers smelling very good, my senior thesis shows that the nectar contains the aptly named chemical 'putrescine.'" - Will Kandalaft '21. Photo provided.
You performed electroantennography to study insect response; how does that work?
Electroantennography is basically just the process of completing a circuit with the insect’s antenna. You attach a wire or a resistor to the insect’s antenna, then you expose it to potential stimuli – like chemical scents or humidity changes – and then see whether the antenna reacts. Theoretically, you could have something like a lightbulb and then an open circuit: You attach the antenna and then stimulate it to see whether the lightbulb suddenly grows brighter or dimmer. If it’s something the insect can’t perceive, then nothing happens; if they can perceive that stimulus, then you see a change in voltage.
How did you become involved in the research published this week in Current Biology?
My contribution to this paper happened so quickly. I had done previous research with insect behavior and humidity, and I knew how to use the technology, so Shayla [Salzman, first author of the paper] basically texted me and said, ‘Hey, if I mailed you weevils, would you be willing to do this?’ I said yes, and in less than 24 hours, Shayla got someone to pick up weevils in Florida and the next afternoon, there was a shipment of weevils in the lab. These organisms do not last long in captivity, so it was a whirlwind banging out all the chemistry and the humidity experiments in a couple of days. It was a really interesting team effort, and it was only because I had already done a lot of the prior work that we were able to get it done so quickly.
What did your efforts contribute to the research findings?
I was originally brought on to test a flight of chemicals – scent odors produced by the cycad plants we were studying. I was there to help check what the weevils, which pollinate the cycads, responded to. However, because I had done previous work about the role of humidity on electroantennograms, I had in the back of my mind that humidity might be playing a role here. And sure enough, when doing the chemistry, it became really obvious to me that humidity was playing an important role – as strong a role as scent, we discovered. This was surprising because, certainly from a human-biased perspective, we don’t have those organs to sense humidity; our ability to perceive humidity is completely contingent on our ability to sense temperature. So the idea that something has as strong of a reaction to smelling, say, a wintergreen mint as they would to humidity changing for a fraction of a second. It was really surprising to us and very exciting to see.
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