For the Love of Science

February, the month of love, romance or, as some may say, chemistry. Mostly, we view the chemical compounds that attract us to potential mates as positive. For the poor vine mealybug, their sex pheromone may be their undoing.

As explained in the Research Focus article in our February newsletter, two USDA-ARS scientists—Jacob Corcoran and Walt Mahaffee—have definitively located the vine mealybug’s odor receptor in males that enables them to identify the highly specific sex pheromone emitted by females. The discovery could open the door to further R&D to essentially jam the signal received via their antennae to prevent them from mating and therefore spreading. And it could help enable the development of technology to sniff out the wily insects hiding under bark or in soil, based on their unique olfactory signal. Something to consider as you spray on your cologne… And also a beautiful example of the awesome possibilities of science.

Science is a beloved but often overlooked part of our everyday lives. Consider this infographic showing the volume of research represented in a simple pizza. The base of your garden-variety pie is formed from wheat bred specifically for baking. Breakthroughs in tomato processing have improved sorting and reduced repetitive motion injuries for workers. Advances in pest management reduce the cost of inputs for onion growers—savings that are passed along to pizza lovers who like onions on top. It may not look like a miracle of science, but there’s a lot of innovation in every bite.

How might that translate to the grape and wine industry? The tractor you use began as an invention by a farmer named John Froelich in Northeast Iowa, and has been reshaped, resized and alternatively powered in myriad ways ever since. The varieties of grapes you grow may be thousands of years old or they could be newer Cornell varieties, developed by grape breeder Bruce Reisch, that confer cold hardiness, disease resistance, unique flavors or other traits of interest. The cover crop you use is probably not just grass or random weeds but plants specifically selected, based on trials by your local Extension agent, to improve water holding capacity or enrich soil health and vine nutrition. Your trellising system, row spacing and orientation, irrigation system, sprayer, sensors and other tools and techniques for growing grapes and managing vineyards are all innovations based on science.

And they all started with an idea someone had, seeking some way to solve a problem. Just like Jacob and Walt (the ARS researchers) sought to help combat a pest of economic significance by leveraging its biology against it.

As the Month of Amore concludes, let’s show some love for science and for the big thinkers and diligent researchers whose ideas and innovations make the world a lovelier place. The mealybug might not appreciate their advances, but the rest of us can rejoice!

Donnell Brown