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Insects, Agriculture and Discovery

University Distinguished Professor Sanford Eigenbrode leads the Regional Approaches to Climate Change in Pacific Northwest Agriculture (REACCH). The University of Idaho-led project was the UI’s largest single research grant to date when it was announced in 2011. He also commutes to work most days by bicycle and picks a tune or two with the REACCH band during social occasions.

An entomologist, University of Idaho faculty member Sanford Eigenbrode focuses on interactions between common insect pests and major crops on the Palouse that surrounds Moscow and throughout the state. His work that reveals how plants use waxy coatings on leaves and stems as defenses against insect earned him international recognition as an expert. More recently, with fellow UI entomologist Nilsa Bosque-Pérez, he deciphered how plant viruses manipulate both their host plants and the aphids that transport viruses from plant to plant.

Collaboration defines Eigenbrode’s approach to teaching and scholarship. Eigenbrode and UI entomologist Mark Schwarzlaender study chemical signals that ensure insect biological control agents target invasive weeds. They also seek the chemicals brassica crops use to repel insect pests. He and UI molecular biologist Joe Kuhl explore how viral mutations can affect their interactions with plants. He and researchers at Germany’s prestigious Max Planck Institute for Materials Research investigate how insects attach to plant surfaces.

“There is nothing as exciting as discovering new horizons in the nexus between different areas of knowledge and expertise,” Eigenbrode said, and credited the University of Idaho for fostering an academic culture that helps facilitate these kinds of cross-disciplinary explorations.

With project leader Bosque-Pérez, he was part of the team that landed two prestigious National Science Foundation Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT) grants, the first in 2001 and a renewal in 2009. The program, which aims to prepare future interdisciplinary scientists, recruited more than 40 doctoral students to work in collaborative teams in Idaho and Costa Rica.

The exploration of cross-disciplinary research that was central to the IGERT projects led Eigenbrode to partner with then-UI philosopher Michael O’Rourke. They worked together to create a workshop-style approach based on the philosophical “toolbox” to help research teams understand members’ vocabularies, approaches and assumptions within their collaborations. Their inquiry resulted in another National Science Foundation grant that funded an international symposium, some 130 workshops based on the toolbox, and an edited volume on the challenges of communication in interdisciplinary research.

“Sanford is one of those rare faculty members who thinks beyond the confines of his discipline,” said Jack McIver, UI vice president for research and economic development. “While his focus is on the future, he is respectful of all points of view. He has recognized the necessity for interdisciplinary training for students and approaches to the complex problems facing the state and the region.”

An extreme close p of a tiny bug walking across a blade of grass.
Sanford Eigenbrode's work as an entomologist has led to new understandings of how the complex interactions between plants and insects affect crop production in the Northwest.

Evolution of a Scientist

When Eigenbrode graduated from Cornell University in 1970, the world was in flux. Equipped with a degree in neurobiology and behavior, he and several classmates paid $13,000 for a 125-acre farm near Cornell and Ithaca, New York. They shared chores on the farm, but pursued different interests, too.

While some farm residents helped to found Ithaca’s Moosewood Restaurant, of “Moosewood Cookbook fame, Eigenbrode worked as a custodian and shop teacher at Ithaca’s Alternative Community School. There, founder and principal Dave Lehman and his staff employed the philosophy of A.S. Neill, the Scottish educator of Summerhill fame. Students chose topics to explore and formed a democratic educational community.

“It was all new and exciting,” Eigenbrode said. “In addition to regular classes, students would work in groups to spend a week or more studying one topic deeply.” His school duties included leading weeklong bicycle trips with students, teaching banjo and guitar and teaching special topics in biology. 

That experience sparked a career and lifelong interest in research and education. Again, Cornell beckoned. An entomologist there, David Pimentel, influenced Eigenbrode’s path. Pimentel continues to focus on organic and other non-conventional approaches to agriculture and societal issues that range from pesticides, tillage, energy, sustainability and immigration.

“I was fortunate to return to Cornell just as people there were helping to shape the emerging field of agroecology,” Eigenbrode said. Pimentel sought a holistic view of agriculture and to apply the scientific method to the tenets of organic agriculture. “He looked at the whole community, the whole production system.”

His time at Cornell led Eigenbrode to a doctorate in entomology in 1990. From there, he followed the post-doc path to the University of California, Riverside, then to the University of Arizona at Tucson. He joined the University of Idaho faculty in 1995.

Eigenbrode’s work as a scientist has evolved, from looking at problems in an integrated way at the community level during his master's degree training, to focusing on specific topics for his doctoral work related to leaf waxes and insects.

He worked with plant breeders and found that changing one gene controlled the amount and type of wax present on leaves and other plant surfaces. Later, he and collaborators showed how one change affected the whole community of insects, pests and predators alike.

”Eventually, during my years on the UI faculty, I returned to the broader systems-level thinking and a desire to contribute to agricultural sustainability that got me into science in the first place,” he said. The shift could have occurred because he had satisfied the desire to know as much as possible about that one thing. “Or maybe it’s because that’s what I was hearing from producers, and they were more integrative.”

That landscape-level perspective was consistent with the UI IGERT grant’s novel approach. Students formed tight-knit interdisciplinary teams to pursue their graduate educations and to better understand community- and landscape-level topics from Palouse prairie remnants near Moscow to coffee production in Costa Rica.

The work on insects, plant defenses and ecological communities led to a number of collaborations, including the ongoing and fruitful one with fellow entomologist Bosque-Pérez.

That work led to a new understanding of how plants and insects are part of complex interactions involving the major wheat threat, Barley yellow dwarf virus; potato pathogen, Potato leafroll virus; and two viruses that affect legumes. In short, aphids seek out plants infected with virus because the virus infection causes the plants to send out attractive chemical signals. Once they have acquired the virus, however, the aphids seek out healthy plants, rapidly spreading the virus and the disease it causes.

A leaf is covered with a large amount of tiny yellow insects.
Sanford Eigenbrode focuses on interactions between common insect pests and major crops on the Palouse that surrounds Moscow and throughout the state.

A Broad ReaCCH

Eigenbrode’s grand collaboration so far is the REACCH project, or Regional Approaches to Climate Change in Pacific Northwest Agriculture. The U.S. Department of Agriculture-funded climate change project includes researchers from three land-grant institutions, UI, Oregon State University and Washington State University, and the USDA Agricultural Research Service.

Announced in 2011 as a coordinated agricultural project by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, REACCH tackles how climate change may affect wheat production. Worth some $2 billion annually to the three states, wheat is big business. It is also complicated.

Entering its fourth year, the five-year project coordinates efforts by scores of scientists with disciplines that range from climate science to agricultural education. Project researchers study how projected climate changes may affect wheat production in the interior Northwest’s several agroecological zones. Others examine how farming practices may influence climate change, how to help the region’s farmers incorporate climate-friendly farming practices, and how high school teachers throughout the region can incorporate climate science and agriculture into their classes.

In his role as REACCH project director, Eigenbrode welcomed National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) Director Sonny Ramaswamy to the UI campus in July for meetings with researchers, students and others. Ramaswamy, as agriculture dean at Oregon State in 2010, had helped support the REACCH partnership along with then Deans John Hammel at UI and Dan Bernardo at WSU. As NIFA director, Ramaswamy now oversees a $1.3 billion budget that is a major federal funding source for agricultural research.

Eigenbrode took that opportunity to suggest that REACCH’s expected conclusion in 2016 should be seen as the beginning of long-term integrative, landscape-level research, education and extension to support Northwest agriculture.

Professor Sanford Eigenbrode poses for the camera.
Sanford Eigenbrode (left) discusses Northwest agriculture with his former REACHH colleague, Sonny Ramaswamy, current director of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

Article by Bill Loftus, College of Agricultural and Life Sciences

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