As the mountain pine beetle infestation spreads over the Rocky Mountains and into the jack pine forests of Alberta, research involving the University of Northern British Columbia is promising to help scientists understand why the insect is able to withstand the extreme cold of northern winters. Researchers point to the beetle’s ability to survive extreme cold as being a major factor in its spread and this research is the first large-scale look at what's going on in mountain pine beetle larvae as they physiologically prepare for winter, and then complete their development into adult beetles in the spring and early summer.
The results of the project can help scientists predict the insect's spread and assist governments and industry in figuring out ways to manage it. The new data comes just as the insect is moving into a new region with different climate variables than it faced as it spread across BC.
“We wanted to get a better idea of the types of natural antifreezes the larval beetle produces and find out how it deals with the physiological stresses that it goes through as it prepares for and endures the extreme cold of winter,” says UNBC Ecosystem Science and Management Professor Dezene Huber, the principal investigator in the study, which was recently published in the international journal Insect Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. “Our work opens new doors to discovery by providing insight for the first time into which genes and biochemical pathways are important to mountain pine beetle survival beyond winter.”
A popular misconception about the pine beetle is that northern winters are no longer cold enough to kill the insect. “While the overall depth of winter cold is important, the timing of deep cold snaps – how early or late the cold happens – is more important,” says Dr. Huber. Dr. Huber and his research team, including research associate and UNBC grad Tiffany Bonnett, surveyed proteins in pine beetle larvae that they collected in early autumn and then late autumn, and again in late winter and early spring. “The results provide a rich source of data on the proteins required for the survival of larvae, and they point to the identities of a number of possible antifreeze compounds in the pine beetle. Our work also contributes to the growing knowledge of cold tolerance processes in other organisms.”
Dr. Huber adds that the research paper has been published in “open access format” – meaning anyone on earth with an internet connection can download and read it – thanks in part to a publishing grant from UNBC. You can download the article here.
“I started working in this research program as a third-year undergraduate student and continued after graduating, and it's been a great experience for me, to follow through and help bring the work to this stage,” says Bonnett who received a UNBC President’s Scholarship, the R. Priefer Organic Chemistry Prize, and the Rotary Club of Gibsons – Jim Ling & Michael Cruise Scholarship while she attended UNBC. “Along the way I've built transferable skills in writing, analytical thinking, and other areas that will be helpful to me whether I pursue graduate studies or another path.”
The study was conducted in collaboration with other researchers from the Tria Project from the Universities of British Columbia, Alberta, and Minnesota and the Natural Resources Canada Canadian Forest Service. Funding for the project was provided by Genome Canada, Genome BC, Genome Alberta, the Canada Research Chairs Program, the Canada Foundation for Innovation, and the BC Knowledge Development Fund.