A competitive grant is helping a Kansas State University doctoral student turn the insect responsible for spreading one of the worst plant diseases into a tool that stifles the disease's transmission.
Ismael E. Badillo-Vargas, a plant pathology doctoral student, Puerto Rico, recently was awarded a pre-doctoral fellowship grant of more than $71,000 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Institute of Food and Agriculture. The competitive scholarship is awarded to agriculture students who have two more years to complete their doctoral degree programs. Recipients receive two years of funding for research expenditures, tuition, a graduate research salary and conference travel.
For Badillo-Vargas, the fellowship advances his research on the tomato spotted wilt virus and its relationship to thrips -- tiny, winged insects that carry and spread the plant disease.
Tomato spotted wilt virus is one of the 10 most devastating plant viruses, according to the USDA. The virus, which kills a variety of food-producing plants, causes about $100 million in U.S. crop losses and roughly $1 billion in global crop losses every year.
The virus is transmitted to plants by the western flower thrips. The virus, however, does not harm the thrips that carry it and replicate the virus. Badillo-Vargas wants to understand why.
He is looking at how the tomato spotted wilt virus affects thrips at the molecular level. Badillo-Vargas is identifying which of the insect's proteins interact with the virus. In doing so, he and other researchers can target these proteins with genetic techniques that could turn off the insect's immunity to the virus.
"The idea is that this may keep the insect from being able to spread the virus anymore," Badillo-Vargas said. "It could stop the insect from being able to carry the tomato spotted wilt virus or even kill the insect with the virus because its defense system would be gone. Ultimately it would let us control the spread of the virus and also the insect itself, which is an agricultural pest and disease vector."
Badillo-Vargas is deve