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UK Biology Professor Awarded USDA Research Grant

By Weston Loyd, Whitney Harder

(Jan. 19, 2016) — Catherine Linnen, an assistant professor in the University of Kentucky Department of Biology, has been awarded a three-year, $468,527 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Institute of Food and Agriculture.

The grant will fund her project, "Comparative Genomics of Specialization: The Genetic Basis of Interspecific Variation in Pine Use in Neodiprion Sawflies."

"The purpose of the research is to increase the understanding of how insects come to prefer or avoid different plant species," Linnen explained. "To a large extent, an insect's willingness to feed on a new host plant is determined by its perception of and response to chemical compounds found in the plant."

Because the origin of every new agricultural pest starts with a change in host plant preference (i.e., an insect species switches from avoiding an economically important plant to feeding on it), Linnen said this knowledge is critical to managing existing pest species and making predictions about the emergence of new insect pests.

Although Linnen is the principal investigator on the project, her graduate student Kim Vertacnik played a significant role in the project inception, design, preliminary data collection and grant writing. Hugh Robertson of the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana and Scott Geib of USDA Daniel K. Inouye Pacific Basin Agricultural Research Center will work in collaboration with Linnen on the project.

Linnen anticipates that the grant will also provide many opportunities for UK graduate and undergraduate students to participate in the research.