The Secret Life of Western Corn Rootworm Beetles

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Delving into the psyche of the infestation that's costing the US $1 billion a year
WCRBmain.jpg
Photo credit: Dr. Joseph Spencer
JH: Hi, thanks so much for talking with us.

WCRB: Hey.

JH: It's an honor to have you out here. You're not from the East Coast, right?

WCRB: I'm a western corn rootworm beetle.

JH: Right, sorry! This is my first interview.

WCRB: You're doing fine.

JH: Okay. So anyway, you've got a big secret.

WCRB: Yes, of sorts. Well, it was a secret, until today, so.

JH: It's okay if we talk about it?

WCRB: You know, people are talking. I might as well have my hat in the fray, as they say.

JH: Yeah, basically. So -- just for the people who don't know -- in the Midwest in the early part of the twentieth century, you were a big problem.

WCRB: In a relative sense, yes. Business is business.[Smiling] But yes, business was very good.

JH: You were destroying a lot of cornfields. Farmers were losing tons of money, our economy was significantly affected, it was no small thing.

WCRB: I appreciate that.

JH: Then we, humans, started doing crop rotation. You want to tell us about that?

WCRB: [Laughs] You want me to tell you. "Excuse me, sir, could you please tell us how you felt when you watched your parents get hit by a van?" No but seriously, it's fine, I can talk about it. So basically, we were doing great and then all the sudden one day there's no corn in the cornfield. It's all soybeans. And we're just like, "We're western corn rootworm beetles, we don't eat soybeans. What's the deal?"

JH: And that's obviously what the human agricultural community intended. Instead of growing corn every year in a given field, we'd grown corn, then soy, then corn, then soy, etc. And it was tough for you?

WCRB: Well, almost all of us died, so was it tough? Yes. Yes, I would call it tough. A hard day's night.

JH: [Laughs]

WCRB: Oh you're laughing at that?

JH: No, just the -- I would probably say stuff like that if I was a beetle, too.

[Silence]

JH: Anyway. So you guys died off, problem solved.

WCRB: Tell us how you really feel.

JH: Ugh, I hate when people say that. But sorry, again. From our perspective, it was good that you weren't eating our food that we worked hard to grow. And for like 50 years you were out of the picture. We thought we solved the problem. Then all of a sudden in the 1990s, you came back. Even in the fields where we were doing crop rotation. You were thriving. The US Department of Agriculture estimated that you'll cost us $1 billion this year alone.

WCRB: Jumanji!

JH: How?

WCRB: I don't want to get into a theological debate. At least, I mean I do, but as you can imagine I'm doing a lot of press stuff right now and I don't have time to do it justice in any sort of metaphysical sense. But to put it plainly, I started to change, and some blue goo started coming out of my stomach.

JH: You're referring to the proteinase enzyme.

WCRB: We called it the blue goo.

JH: Fine with me. So the blue goo, what did it do?

WCRB: I spread it on the soybean leaves, see, like a pate inside my stomach. And then I could eat them. No problem. It's like all the sudden, hey, look at me, I'm eating soybeans! A western corn rootworm beetle -- can you imagine?

JH: It's probably not as hard for me to imagine as it was for you. But still, interesting and very important in terms of its implications.

WCRB: It is, it is. And you guys didn't know about the blue goo, so you were all just like, "What the heck? You guys again?"

JH: To put it lightly. You became this devastating infestation again. We didn't know why, and we couldn't get rid of you. Some farmers in the Midwest started giving up corn and soy altogether.

WCRB: I'm very little, but I'm a player on the international economic scene.

JH: You are. But then, this journal article that came out today...

WCRB: You know, it's a mixed blessing. All things must pass.

JH: Oh, a post-Beatles reference. You're funny.

WCRB: Thanks.

JH: Again, for people who haven't heard, we learned about the proteinases -- the blue goo.

WCRB: You did, you did. Well, not you specifically, but the people with the jars in the Department of Crop Sciences at the University of Illinois.

JH: Right. They figured out your game.

WCRB: So yeah, they did. I mean it's far from the end of us. But I guess farmers are probably going to start planting beans that are resistant to the blue goo. Which would really set us back.

JH: That could save us a lot of money. But then would you develop a green goo, maybe, that can digest those blue-resistant beans?

WCRB: Probably. Evolution is hard to predict. I'm just looking at it like you guys won this battle, but the war's not over. It's a long and winding road.

JH: And in the end?

WCRB: The [beans] you take are equal to the [effective proteinase] you make.

JH: Great.
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James Hamblin, MD, is a senior editor at The Atlantic.

 
 
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