From the inside out: that’s the approach Juan Luis Jurat-Fuentes takes when it comes to controlling the fall armyworm, a major threat to food supplies in Africa.
The insect has spread to 32 countries on the African continent and is now making its way into Asia, causing more than $5 billion in damage to crops and bringing on a global food crisis, according to Jurat-Fuentes and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
Jurat-Fuentes is a professor of entomology and plant pathology at the UT Institute of Agriculture, where he leads a laboratory working to control the fall armyworm and its incessant progress through developing countries.
“When it invaded Africa, the concern was that the insect also has a very broad-range migratory behavior. Last year, it was found causing huge problems in sorghum in India and it was found in the last couple of weeks in China,” said Jurat-Fuentes. “So we know it’s spreading and becoming a global superpest.”
In the lab, Jurat-Fuentes and his team are developing an eco-friendly approach to destroying the fall armyworm from the inside out.
“The project’s looking at the gut as a target, focusing on bacteria that produce toxins that kill particular insects, including the fall armyworm,” said Jurat-Fuentes. “The toxins basically make holes in the gut of the insect, so the insect almost immediately stops eating, which is very good for the farmer because as soon as it contacts the bacteria, the insect stops consuming the plant and they die soon thereafter.”
For almost a decade, Jurat-Fuentes has been working to control the fall armyworm, primarily because it was one of the first insects to develop resistance to toxins in the field. Through this research on new toxins and how to track and prevent armyworm resistance, Jurat-Fuentes feels that his work can make a global impact.
“When this project came along and we started working on the fall armyworm, I knew that we were making a difference in the US because we were preventing resistance from emerging domestically. But interest escalated when the insect invaded Africa and now Asia, and now I have many colleagues calling and interested to work together,” he said.
Jurat-Fuentes hails from Valencia, Spain. He earned his bachelor’s and master’s in biology and genetics from the University of Valencia. Then it was on to the University of Georgia, where he earned his PhD in entomology, staying on as a postdoc and later research scientist. He came to UTIA in 2006.
While Jurat-Fuentes is becoming known globally for taking on the fall armyworm, there’s another thing he’s quite passionate about.
“My true passion is soccer and social Argentine tango. My wife and I had a chance to visit Argentina for a scientific conference a few years ago and we got exposed to the tango culture there,” he said.
Since then, Jurat-Fuentes and his wife, Sodeya, have built on their love of this social dance to mentor the UT Argentine Tango student club (VolTango), open to anyone associated with the university.
“We teach anyone, for free, and we get them to dance socially and practice while they learn,” he said.
Argentine tango has been more than a pastime for Jurat-Fuentes; it’s also been a conduit for meeting other scientists as well as a confidence builder.
“I think what helps me from Argentine tango is that it builds your confidence and the way you interact with others. I think that it’s been really beneficial for me to make connections at scientific meetings,” he said. “I have found that now I greatly enjoy to interact with other scientists and give presentations. I think Argentine tango has a big role in building that confidence.”
The fall armyworm has met its match.
Doug Edlund (865-974-7363, firstname.lastname@example.org)