Researchers target a destructive insect

Drs. George Mbata and Somashekhar Punnuri are on a mission to help Georgia farmers save their crop yield from whiteflies.

Oct. 29, 2019

Drs. George Mbata and Somashekhar Punnuri are on a mission to help Georgia farmers save their crop yield from whiteflies

Dr. Somashekhar Punnuri, a FVSU research assistant professor, will lend his research skills in plant breeding to the project.

Tiny sap-sucking insects are overtaking Georgia’s crops and leaving a trail of destruction behind them.

To combat this outbreak, Dr. George Mbata, a Fort Valley State University professor and entomologist, and Dr. Somashekhar Punnuri, a FVSU research assistant professor, will research a strategy to stop these whitefly intruders from wreaking havoc in the southeastern United States.

Whiteflies belong to the order Hemiptera, which are called true bugs. “They suck the sap out of plants and transmit pathogens such as viruses that can cause plant diseases, thereby reducing the yield,” Mbata said. “When there is an abundant population, it can cause discoloration of the crop leaves. The plants then cannot perform photosynthesis.” This causes farmers’ crop yield to drop.

One specific strain, the Bemisia tabaci whitefly, is prominent in Georgia. “The problem is this particular pest develops a resistance to chemical pesticides very easily,” Mbata said. He added that the rapid evolution of insecticide resistance in whitefly populations makes it unsustainable to use chemical control. Offering his 30-plus years of pest management expertise, the biology professor is collaborating with the University of Georgia and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Agricultural Research Service (ARS) in South Carolina.

In addition, Punnuri will contribute his plant molecular breeding expertise to this research. His role is to identify plant resistant traits in resistant sources in the shortest time using molecular tools. Additional research will include advancing breeding efforts of conventional breeding.

“This information will add to the other researchers’ findings and yield suitable varieties that are resistant to whiteflies for this region and for Georgia,” Punnuri said. “I am very excited to be part of this grant and a great team to develop these sustainable approaches.”

The goal is to characterize whitefly infestations of fruits and vegetables (tomatoes, snap beans and squash) in middle Georgia and provide short-term and long-term integrated pest management tools that farmers can use to mitigate infestations.

“We will investigate whiteflies and whitefly-transmitted viruses in vegetable cropping systems from the perspective of an ecology-based integrated pest-plant virus management system,” Mbata explained.

Mbata and Punnuri, along with their collaborators, will develop this system to control whiteflies and whitefly-transmitted viruses by incorporating plant resistance, biorational chemicals, insecticide resistance management, biocontrol and other biotechnology tools. “We are taking an integrated approach using natural enemies such as predators, parasitoids (wasps) and entomopathogens (fungi or nematodes),” Mbata said.

Research will include screening and evaluating germplasms and hybrids of tomatoes, snap beans and squash for resistance and susceptibility to whiteflies in greenhouses. The scientists will develop strategies for resistance breeding among the selected germplasms and evaluate the efficacy of insecticides and entomopathogens in the field. Mbata and Punnuri will conduct these field trials and greenhouse experiments on FVSU’s Agricultural Research Station farms.

FVSU will receive $532,800 for this USDA-ARS project. The title is “Managing Whiteflies and Whitefly-Transmitted Viruses in Vegetable Crops in the Southeastern U.S.” Funding is for two years, but Mbata anticipates this being a five-year project. This grant also provides an opportunity to exchange and train students and postdoctoral researchers between UGA and FVSU labs.

For more information, contact Mbata at (478) 825-6550 or mbatag@fvsu.edu, or Punnuri at (478) 825-6519 or punnuris@fvsu.edu.