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Walk in the park yields biological treasure

While a postdoctoral research fellow at Harvard, Whiteman became frustrated by the lack of a model system to study plant-insect interactions on a genetic and molecular level.

After an extensive literature search, he went out into the field and started looking for mustard plants that had flies living in and on them.

"One of the first places I started to look was Fresh Pond, which provides a lot of the water supply for Cambridge. There was a vacant lot so I pulled up my car and looked for yellow flowers. And sure enough, there was this plant called Barbarea vulgaris growing there, which is introduced from Europe and closely related to watercress."

"I looked for mines in the leaves. I brought some leaves and larvae to the lab, wrapped them in paper towels, put them in cages and let them go."

Eventually, flies started coming out. Some of them had red eyes.

"I keyed them out and they turned out to belong to the genus Scaptomyza, an outdated classification because we now know they belong to the Drosophila genus. 'This is exciting,' I thought. I put them all in a cage with Arabidopsis plants. They started attacking the plants; not only the larvae, but the adult females, too. They make holes in the leaves with their ovipositors and drink the juices that come out."

Then, one day, while walking his dog in one of Boston's oldest city parks, Whiteman again came across the plants with the telltale tunnels in their leaves.

"I found the same plant there and the same flies in it. There were actually two Scaptomyza species coming out of this plant. One is a true herbivore and was making the mines, and the other was living in the mines of the miner. I sent the flies to the Smithsonian USDA Insect Identification Lab for confirmation but they sent them back and said, 'There is nobody here who could identify this.'"

"There seems to be this idea that there is this big convention where peo

Contact: Daniel Stolte
University of Arizona

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Walk in the park yields biological treasure
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