Attention Wasps: Uncle Sam Wants You
ARS News Service
Agricultural Research Service, USDA
Jan Suszkiw, (301) 504-1630, firstname.lastname@example.org
July 19, 1999
Tiny parasitic wasps that attack crop-hungry caterpillars may be recruited
for a new assignment.
U.S. Department of Agriculture entomologist Joe Lewis is studying the wasps'
potential to sniff out chemical odors from unexploded ordnance such as
bombs, mines, or toxins in nerve gases.
The four-year project is funded by Controlled Biological Systems (CBS), a
program administered by the Department of Defense's Advanced Research
Projects Agency (DARPA).
Lewis' research group is one of several helping DARPA explore new ways of
monitoring the environment around military, civilian, or agricultural areas
for chemical or biological threats, particularly from terrorist activity.
One CBS interest is developing new detection technologies patterned after
the olfactory and neural mechanisms by which insects smell odors with their
CBS coordinator Alan Rudolph first contacted Lewis a year ago, after
learning of Lewis' work with Microplitis, Cotesia, and Cardiochiles wasps at
the Insect Biology and Population Management Research Lab, operated in
Tifton, Georgia, by USDA's Agricultural Research Service. ARS is USDA's
chief scientific agency.
The work of Lewis, Iowa State University collaborator Tim Baker, and ARS
chemist Jim Tumlinson, is three-pronged. One is tuning the wasps' sense of
smell to the odor of cyclohexanol, trinitrotuluene (TNT) and other
explosives ingredients; the second is tying specific wasp behaviors to a
specific odor's presence; and the third is determining how best to employ
One possibility: placing them in a mobile probe where air samples can be
smelled. Another is rigging detached wasp antennae to a remotely-controlled
sensor that displays the electrical readings.
What makes this possible? Scientists can teach the wasps to find odors
otherwise ignored in nature. In flight tunnel experiments, scientists showed
that the wasps would fly towards tubes emitting cyclohexanol, TNT, vanilla
and methyl jasmonate at rates of 0.05 to 30 nanograms per minute one meter
In nature, this dog-like sense of smell helps wasps find plants where
caterpillars can serve as hosts for offspring.
Scientific contact: Joe Lewis, ARS Insect Biology and Population Management
Research Lab, Tifton, Ga. phone (912) 387-2369, fax (912) 382-9467,
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