Better Know a Scientist: Entomologist Erfan Vafaie

Erfan Vafaie. Image from Texas A&M.
Erfan Vafaie. Image from Texas A&M.

This is the first in a new series called “Better Know a Scientist”. The goal of these interviews will be for scientists to share their research, for us readers to gain more knowledge in a field we may not be familiar with, and to learn a bit about the individuals doing the research as well. I’m going to be interviewing my friend, Erfan Vafaie (@sixleggedaggie), who blogs at sixleggedaggie.com. Over the past few years, we’ve sent each other papers that we’ve found interesting, and I’ve asked him about bugs and GMOs to get his insights and perspectives. Like me, he is also an Iranian-Canadian, but lives in Texas.

Here we go!

Q: Most people spend a lifetime trying to avoid bugs yet you chose to study them. Why?

Oh boy! Because insects are super cool? Whether looking at how bees communicate with their colony-mates where a good nectar/pollen source is via a bee dance, or ants building intricate networks under the ground including graveyards, or the ability of a woolly bear caterpillar to tolerate freezing at temperatures as low as -70ºC, insects are incredibly fascinating in their behaviors, lifecycles, and physiology. One of my favorites are parasitic wasps, which kill their host by laying an egg inside it (endoparasitoids). That egg becomes a larva that slowly feeds on the insides of the host insect, while the host continues to feed and live normally. After a while, the larva will eat everything on the inside, metamorphose inside (similar to a caterpillar to a butterfly), and become a new adult parasitoid – that’s basically the movie Alien happening EVERYWHERE in your garden!

But it’s the combination of my fascination with insects and their importance in sustainable and fruitful agriculture (pun intended) that really motivates me. Farmers are some of the hardest working and under-appreciated individuals in our society. So what better job than to be able to help them whilst studying these mini-aliens we call insects?

[Layla’s note to Erfan: Excellent reference to the movie Alien and great tie-in with insects. Well played, sir, well played].

Q: What bugs are you currently studying?

At this moment, the crape myrtle bark scale, which is an invasive insect of crape myrtles in Southern US. We are currently studying their population dynamics throughout the summer, as well as best management practices in the landscape and nursery. I also just finished up some work on aphids and will be doing some work on thrips and mosquitoes soon. Being in my position, you tend to work on a wide variety of insects on different commodities, depending on the needs of the industry in your area at the time.

Q: A common criticism I’ve read is that studies on transgenic crops only examine health impacts in mammals, and not the impact on non-target bugs and critters. Do you think this is fair criticism?

I’m not so sure that’s fair. There are many studies on the subject and the research continues to investigate the impact of transgenic crops on non-target insects. Wolfenbarger and friends assimilated and analyzed results from several other research articles (meta-analysis) and found hundreds of studies with specific criteria related to the impact of transgenic crops (Bt specifically) on non-target organisms of cotton, maize, and potato. So there’s a substantial amount there and research continues being done in that area.

[Layla’s note: the Bt trait will be mentioned throughout this interview. It is a bacterial protein in some transgenic crops that targets specific insects. It is also a common pesticide used in organic farming. For more information on the trait, please see this post.]

Q: Why do you think that the topic of neonicotinoid pesticides has gotten confounded with the issue of GMOs? As I understand it, they’re two separate issues.

I agree, they are two very separate issues. Neonicotinoids are a class of insecticides that were first born in the commercial market in 1985 in response to older chemistries (i.e. organophosphates and carbamates) that had higher mammalian, avian, and environmental toxicity compared to neonics (short for neonicotinoids). Neonics have since become one of the most popular insecticide classes used. They do not need to be used in conjunction with GMOs, nor do I know of any GMO seeds that depend on the use of neonics; thus making the two issues unrelated. There are activists that would name neonics as the primary factor responsible for bee colony collapse disorder, whereas other activists accuse GMOs for causing a completely different set of consequences.

People may be confounding the two issues because neonics have often been used as a ‘seed treatment’; the seeds are coated in neonics, and as a result, are taken up by the plant and protect it for the first 3 – 4 weeks of growth, which can be thought of as being similar to introducing a gene, such as the transgene in Bt-corn that protects the plant from within. The EPA has since published a document (‘Benefits of Neonicotinoid Seed Treatments to Soybean Production’) demonstrating that neonic coated seeds are ubiquitous in nature and not very advantageous in most situations. That’s the only reason why I can think the two may have been confounded in the past.

Q: I think it’s fair to say that you’re very tall. So tall, in fact, that it seems “unnatural”. How should the readers at Biofortified know that you’re not a genetically modified human being who is advocating the safety of transgenic crops as the first step in some quest for eventual world domination?

Standing at 6 foot 7 on a good day (depending on atmospheric pressure, humidity, and sock thickness), the daily fight to prove that I’m 100% natural and organic has been a losing battle. Let us thus assume, for the sake of argument, that I am genetically modified or genetically enhanced in some manner. We can draw on the great anecdotal and scientifically accurate example of the mutants from the Marvel Universe and X-Men.

In that arena, there are genetically enhanced humans that continue to promote the welfare of humanity (i.e. Xavier and his school gifted youngsters) and those that are selfish and desire for the world to crumble (Magneto and his hard-headed goons). We can differentiate between the will to do good by viewing the actions, motivations, and thoughts of the person as a whole. Xavier continues to build strong and positive ties with common-folk, empowers the younger generation to embrace their inner powers, and shows integrity in goodwill towards mankind. Magneto, on the other hand, continues to harm humans and expresses that “Nature has made us superior. We are the living future of this mighty planet. This world is ours world now! Take it!” (X-Men: Graduation Day, S.5.E.4, 1997). I think those who know me personally would agree that my actions are more in line with the Xavier team than Magneto’s.

[Layla’s note: Again, I think that Erfan is trying to portray himself as the “good guy” with this amazing response. That’s exactly what a genetically modified alien would try to do. Erfan 2, Layla 0]

Q: If there’s one thing that you want people to know about bugs and GMOs, what would it be?

There’s a common misconception that the use of GMOs promotes more insecticide use and can hurt more non-target insects (i.e. beneficial insects like butterflies and honeybees) than conventional agriculture . Brookes and Barfoot estimated a drop in global herbicide and insecticide use as a result of GM adoption to be 172.5 million kg (between the years of 1996 – 2004), with cotton crops specifically decreasing just over 14% in total herbicide and insecticide applications.

Gianessi and Carpenter (2001) calculated that between 1995 (year before Bt varieties were introduced) to 1999, the amount of insecticides used decreased by 2.7 million kg of formulated product in just six states (AR, AZ, CA, LA, MS, and TX), which represents 14% of all insecticides used in those six states. In addition the number of spray applications/ha was reduced by 15 million which represented a 22% reduction in spray applications. The Arizona Cotton Research and Protection Council (2000) has stated that Bt cotton has helped to reduce insecticide use in Arizona cotton to the lowest levels in the past 20 years! That’s a win for reduction of pesticide use.

In addition, incorporating the insecticide into the crop is an intuitive way to keep the non-target organisms safe; by integrating the insect toxin into the plant, you’re effectively targeting the insects that are eating your crops! Marvier and her friends analyzed several studies (meta-analysis) and found non-target insects to be more abundant in fields where GM crops were used compared to non-GM crops with insecticide sprays (using pyrethroids). It should be noted, however, that fields without GM crops and were not sprayed had higher numbers of non-target organisms than fields with GM-crops, so the GM crop does have some impact on non-target organisms, whether it be directly or indirectly (i.e. killing the insect that carnivorous insects eat).

[Layla’s note: Erfan’s awesome references supporting his statements earns him another point.]

Q: The spouse is from Texas, so we’ve been to quite a few country concerts. Have you been to one yet? If so, who? (You cannot lie on Biofortified, so you have to admit if it was Taylor Swift). If not, whose show would you go to?

Unfortunately, I have not been to any concerts in Texas as of yet. I have been to some local gigs/musical performances in Tyler Texas. They have some good talent here! I have, however, been to an A&M football game, with just over 109K people there. Let me tell ya – that was insane!

[Layla’s note: As a country music fan who has shaken hands with Tim McGraw and has had a cowboy hat signed by Alan Jackson, this response is completely unacceptable. Erfan 3, Layla 10000] [Erfan’s note to Layla’s note: Can we review how the point system works here?] [Layla’s note to Erfan: No. My interview, my rules]

Q: Are you aware of any evidence indicating that transgenic crops are responsible for CCD (colony collapse disorder) in bees? What about the decline of butterflies?

Colony collapse disorder, a very specific set of symptoms that have characterized large losses of honeybee hives since 2006, may be caused by several different factors: environmental stress, transportation of the bees, malnutrition, varroa mites, insect pathogens, and pesticides. Insect-resistant GMO crops incorporate genes from the bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis, which produce toxins that have relatively specific binding sites in the gut of lepidopteran (i.e. moth and butterfly larva/caterpillars) and some coleopteran (i.e. beetle) insects . As such, insects like honeybees are left unharmed. A meta-analysis (i.e. research article that looks at many studies) by Duan and friends analyzed 25 studies and found there to be no negative impact of Bt on honeybees in a lab setting. A more recent study by Dai and friends looked at the impact of Bt corn on honeybees in the field and found there to be “no difference in immature stages, worker survival, bee body weight, hypopharyngeal gland weight, colony performance, foraging activity or olfactory learning abilities”. So it appears that the current consensus is that transgenic crops are not a player in the whole CCD dealio.

Butterflies are a slightly different story, because as I mentioned just above, the toxins from Bt are specific to moth and butterfly larva/caterpillars. The very intent of the incorporated gene is to control/kill the younger stages of butterflies… so of course it’s going to kill them! The question we should ask, however, is whether the Bt is killing non-target butterflies on neighboring plants (i.e. milkweed) that we don’t want killed – afterall, monarch  butterflies feed specifically on milkweed, which is often considered a weed in the context of agriculture. A study by Losey and friends found that Bt pollen can reduce the growth, survival, and leaf consumption of monarch butterfly caterpillars. This study was trying to investigate what is referred to as “pollen drift”, which in the transgenic world means – “is the pollen from the transgenic crop drifting onto neighboring plants and causing unforeseen consequences?”. However, this study was done in a lab (i.e. unrealistic environmental factors), the pollen was artificially introduced to the monarch’s host plant in an amount that ‘seemed’ equivalent to the field, and there was no comparison to alternatives (i.e. Bt spray), so the jury is still out on whether Bt crops are a major concern for non-target insects.  One thing to consider, however, is that an entire corn field may take only up to two weeks to release all of its pollen, which is a very short exposure time to Bt-pollen compared to a weekly spray of Bt (or some other insecticide), which was the norm pre-Bt transgenics.

[Layla’s note to Erfan: nobody’s used “dealio” since 2002. There aren’t enough points to subtract from your score to make up for this offense.]

Q: Do you secretly wish that you were a human geneticist like me? Do you want to join the private industry and swear a secret oath in exchange for never-ending wealth? I can put in a good word with my overlords for you at our next sacrificial ritual.

No. Certainly not.

(But secretly, yes! I submitted an online query to the League of Villainous Scientists through their contact page, with a full cover letter of why I’d like to do evil things to people and our planet for never-ending wealth, but haven’t heard back. A ‘good word’ would be most appreciated!)

[Layla’s note: I KNEW it!!]
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Layla Parker-Katiraee holds a PhD in Molecular Genetics from the University of Toronto and a Bachelors degree in biochemistry from the University of Western Ontario. She is currently a Staff Scientist in DNA Sequencing Product Development. All views and opinions expressed are her own.

  • Thanks for conducting this interview! Erfan sounds like a really fun guy. I want to be in the League of Villainous Scientists, too 😉