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"Insect Aside" -- The Discovery Files

The Discovery Files
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Research from Cornell University indicates that getting rid of insects could trigger some unwelcome ecological consequences, such as the rapid loss of desired traits in plants, including their good taste and high yields.

Credit: NSF/Karson Productions

Audio Transcript:

(Sound effect: sound of flying insects) Fiends with benefits

I'm Bob Karson with the discovery files--new advances in science and engineering from the National Science Foundation.

Hug a bug. Be careful not to squash it. According to a study out of Cornell University, in spite of their pesky attributes, without insects, plants could quickly lose their defense mechanisms along with desired traits like good taste and high yields. It's an evolutionary "use it or lose it" scenario that--to their surprise--the team found took just three or four generations.

We usually think of evolution as an extremely slow process. This study of the evening primrose dramatically demonstrates how fast plants can evolve when grown in insecticide-treated plots. With no moths bugging them, the plants stopped investing energy in their anti-insect defenses and the defenses disappeared within about five years.

Scientists think many plant traits originally evolved to battle against bugs. Some of these anti-insect defenses, such as the bitter taste of some fruits, are desirable to us humans and we wouldn't want to see those traits lost.

As modern agriculture relies more on breeding pest-resistant plants, this living laboratory at Cornell will continue to help evolutionary biologists study complex ecological relationships like the ones between plants and bugs.

Sorry, but I will still swat any mosquito that lands on me. (Sound effect: slap!)

"The discovery files" covers projects funded by the government's national science foundation. Federally sponsored research--brought to you, by you! Learn more at or on our podcast.

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