December 2, 2014
Lexington, Ky.

Xuguo “Joe” Zhou’s entomology research has pushed University of Kentucky onto the international stage after he and his collaborator, Yongjun Zhang, received a prestigious research grant from China.

Zhou, an associate professor of insect integrative genomics in the UK College of Agriculture, Food and Environment, is one of only 20 international researchers in the world to receive the Major International (Regional) Joint Research Award from the National Natural Science Foundation of China, which awarded three million Chinese Yuan, or about $500,000, to further his research goals.

“I don’t know why, but this year has been really good for entomology,” Zhou said, as four of the 20 Chinese grants were awarded to insect researchers like himself.

In collaboration with Zhang, a professor at the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, Zhou and a team of Chinese researchers are working to rid Chinese and American crops from the insidious whitefly.

“I’ve always wanted to do something with an agricultural pest that both the U.S. and China have problems with, but not an ‘established’ pest that has already been highly researched,” Zhou said. He chose to study the whitefly, an invasive species that originated from the Mediterranean region and is emerging as a global pest.

The whitefly attacks more than 600 plant species by using its sucker-mouth to extract the nutrients from the crops. In the U.S., this pest is still confined to greenhouses, but whiteflies have transitioned toward destroying open fields in China.

“If we don’t control the whiteflies, they’re going to have a devastating impact on crops,” Zhou said, because whiteflies also transmit over 200 different plant viruses.

The research team uses a technique called RNA interference (RNAi), in which certain whitefly genes will be “turned off” to inhibit gene expression. This impacts biological processes, physiological characteristics and even the fly’s behavior.

Before focusing on the whitefly, Zhou spent years using RNAi on termites in an agricultural setting. He found that by interfering with just one gene—the gene that allows termites to digest wood—the entire colony collapsed.

“If you want to kill a superorganism like termites, you have to disrupt the overall equilibrium in a colony instead of killing individuals,” Zhou said. “We want to manipulate their behavior at the genetic level to make them unable to maintain their social homeostasis. Disruption of homeostasis will cause colony collapse.”

Zhou said that this technique becomes even more complicated with the whitefly, because they have 24 different biotypes within one species. When one whitefly biotype becomes resistant to insecticides, a new biotype emerges and wipes out the previous one.

“It’s astonishing. I just don’t understand how,” Zhou said, but he hopes to use RNAi to discover why these different biotypes keep emerging and replacing one another.

The research will be done primarily in China, but Chinese researchers will be brought to the U.S. and funded by the grant money to complete research here.

Outside of the lab, Zhou also serves as a co-advisor for Chinese doctoral students from various institutions by assisting them with their research projects and advising them on how to get their research published in the U.S., despite the 12-hour time difference. He advises his Chinese students via Skype and also visits China several times throughout the year.

Zhou keeps himself busy with his collaborative research with China, but he hopes this effort will help establish UK as a top research facility in order to compete for federal research dollars from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Receiving research grants from the USDA is extremely difficult, Zhou said. The award rate for non-honeybee research proposals is at only 6%.

“That’s why we’re trying to build on this American-Chinese relationship and to do this important research so that ultimately, we can bring our knowledge back from the research in China to benefit UK,” Zhou said. “We hope this will help UK compete nationally for those very few USDA research dollars.”

China’s International (Regional) Joint Research Program aims to enhance China’s international competitiveness and to achieve breakthroughs in the frontier research areas. By collaborating with foreign partners like the U.S., this program establishes mutual benefits and equal sharing of research results.

UK is hoping to promote more of this collaborative research through the Office of China Initiatives, whose goal is to assist UK faculty find research funding opportunities in China. Zhou established this connection through his research, making UK one-step closer toward its goal of international success.

Contact: 

Sarah Geegan, (859) 257-5365; sarah.geegan@uky.edu

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