Genetic Research on Carrion Feeding Insects to Improve Agricultural, Medical, and Forensic Applications.
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Carrion feeding insects can impact numerous components of an ecosystem, including the part of the ecosystem inhabited by the agricultural sector . Carrion feeding blow flies often cause myiasis in humans and livestock causing medical and veterinary problems [2-4]. One species of blow fly, Cochliomyia hominivorax, is so problematic that the Sterile Insect Technique (SIT) was developed by the USDA specifically to eradicate the fly from the United States . This program is extant and involves the continuous deployment of sterilized flies in Panama and a monitoring program to catch and eliminate any reintroductions. Interestingly, myiasis has also been associated with beneficial uses of blow fly biology, as some flies can be used to successfully debride wounds due to mechanical and molecular impacts on wound healing, microbial communities, and host immune systems [6-8]. Carrion feeding insects can also impact food security by mechanically transferring pathogens from animal facilities or human waste streams to plants and food preparation areas [1, 9, 10]. Furthermore, some insect species, such as the Red Imported Fire Ant (RIFA) are demonstrated to be beneficial insects in some agricultural systems [11-13] as they actively protect crops from herbivory. However, these and similar insects are also carrion feeders  and it is unclear how this role in the ecosystem impacts their beneficial role in agriculture. For instance, would the presence of carrion in an agricultural system enhance or decrease crop protection? Some carrion feeding insects, such as blow flies, have also been demonstrated as pollinators [15-17], including pollinators of crops. However, their role as pollinators is very poorly understood, even in this age of heightened concern regarding pollinator health. Finally, all carrion feeding insects play an important role in nutrient recycling, which is critical to understand in any crop system. However, relatively little is known regarding the role of carrion in these systems as opposed to autotrophic biomass (e.g. rotting plant material) in how nutrients like nitrogen, sulfur, and phosphorus cycle through the environment even though the process of decomposition is studied in detail in other fields like forensic science, where knowledge of the process is useful in death investigations both in the location of remains and the determination of an estimate of how long remains have been decomposing. Another area of research where decomposer biology impacts agriculture is through the elimination of animal waste, production of alternative fuels, and alternative protein sources. The black soldier fly (BSF) is currently being studied in this capacity around the globe as a means of limiting microbial dissemination from waste streams, improving the protein supply for several agricultural systems, and to limit fuel costs [18-22]. The Tarone lab takes a genetic approach to studying these defined problems associated with carrion insects. This can range from assembling and annotating the genomes of insects and bacteria relevant to the aforementioned processes , to evolutionary genetic comparisons of carrion flies to other pest flies that do not feed on carrion, to functional genetic studies of biotic and abiotic responses of flies , to quantitative genetic studies of life history traits [26, 27], to estimates of genome size . The lab also studies the model organism Drosophila melanogaster to learn basic principles about the biology of traits relevant to carrion insect success [29-31]. A common thread of these efforts are 1) the development of genetic tools in carrion feeding insects and 2) an understanding of life history trait variation in carrion feeding insects. Ultimately, the goal for conducting these sorts of studies is to enhance beneficial aspects of carrion insect biology (e.g wound debridement therapy, forensic applications, etc.) and to ameliorate negative aspects of their biology (e.g. spreading disease, myiasis, etc.)