Working with insects may not be for everyone, but for me, it is an exciting and engaging experience. For the final year of my program, I moved to Leeds to work under the supervision of Steve Sait at the University of Leeds School of Biology, where I am finishing the last of my experimental work.
For the final aspect of my PhD project, I’ve focused on understanding the interactions between insects and pathogenic fungi. Specifically, I’m interested in how the course of infection is influenced by environmental factors, like temperature. To study this, I’m using the model organism Tenebrio molitor, commonly known as the yellow mealworm. Working with mealworms has been a fascinating experience. These insects have a rather long lifecycle of three months but reproduce quickly and gregariously. They are also simple to maintain and require little space, which is especially important in a busy lab filled with other active experiments. Also, quite importantly, they do not fly around or escape easily. These characteristics make yellow mealworms idea model organisms for studying various biological processes, like host-pathogen relationships.
To investigate how temperature mediates disease outcomes in host-pathogen relationships, I measured the growth of both the fungal pathogens I work with (Metarhizium spp) and the mealworms separately at different temperatures, as well as how the infection progressed. I chose four temperatures, including the optimal temperature for growth for the fungi, the optimal temperature for the insects, and then two more temperatures that would be sub-optimally high and low for both organisms. The work has just finished, so I am excited to analyse the data and see what the outcome is. I hope my results will show how well the fungi and insects grow individually at a range of temperatures, and then how the infection progresses at these temperatures. This provides information on which are the more important factors for the infection processes – the thermal needs of the fungi or those of the insects. These findings could have important implications for understanding the dynamics of insect-pathogen interactions in natural and agricultural systems.
Perhaps even more exciting than the findings themselves has been the process of conducting this research. I appreciated getting to know the intricate lives of the mealworms and learning more about their biology and behavior. I have been amazed by the complexity of the interactions between these insects and their environment, and the many ways in which subtle changes can have profound effects on their health and well-being. Overall, my experience working with insects for my final experiment has been incredibly rewarding, and I am excited to continue exploring these fascinating creatures and the ways in which they interact with the world around them.