Thrips may be small, but the pests cause billions of dollars in agricultural damage each year, which is why Washington State University is part of a five-year, $3.75 million project to study the insect's role in virus transmission and strategies for pest management.
Specifically, the multi-institutional, multi-disciplinary research squad is generating new knowledge on thrips-transmitted tospoviruses – infectious agents that spread and cause damage to a variety of crops, causing them to wilt and die.
Tospoviruses also damage the quality of fruits and vegetables produced by their infected plants, says Naidu Rayapati, a researcher at the WSU Irrigated Agriculture Research and Extension Center in Prosser, and co-principal investigator on the USDA grant.
Before joining WSU, he worked with tospoviruses at the University of Georgia and at the nonprofit International Crops Research Institute for Semi-Arid Tropics headquartered in India.
"We'd like to study how these viruses spread and contribute to the evolution of new strains," he explains. "For example, can a single insect acquire and transmit two viruses to the same plant simultaneously?"
The project will focus on areas where thrips damage is most severe and causes major crop losses. Rayapati says the team is interested in understanding how management techniques applied in one region might work in another.
He is recruiting students from the Yakima Valley who will begin work this summer.
"This project has an extension component in terms of working with stakeholders to convey science-based information for practical applications, but what we are also focusing on is training the next generation of scientists," he notes.
The grant is funded through the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative of the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, with $670,000 allotted to WSU.
The collaboration includes entomologists, plant pathologists, molecular breeders and extension faculty from the University of California-Davis, University of Georgia, and the USDA-Agricultural Research Service U.S. Horticultural Research Laboratory.