This week just may have brought the biggest development in the science of bug splatter in more than a decade.
A long 12 years after Mark E. Hostetler of the University of Florida won the Ig Nobel Prize in entomology for his analysis of insects smushed by car windshields, a nationwide team of researchers has brought the field buzzing back with the help of advanced genomics.
The group, led by Anton Nekrutenko of Pennsylvania State University, has developed a method of taking the scrapings off the front of a car and chemically identifying and counting the individual species of bugs stuck in the muck.
“This is extremely difficult,” Mr. Nekrutenko said, explaining his breakthrough as an important new use of metagenomics, which is the science of genetically analyzing a microorganism through the extraction and cloning of its DNA.
Mr. Hostetler can appreciate the advance. An associate professor of wildlife ecology and conservation, he was a pioneer of insect splatter in the 1990s, identifying the bugs he pulled off Greyhound buses and trapped with a specially devised net fashioned to the top of his Honda Accord. His subsequent book, “That Gunk on Your Car,” was intended to raise environmental awareness. It also brought him the Ig Nobel, the Harvard University-based award honoring insightful combinations of science and humor.
But Mr. Hostetler was limited to identifying only the bugs that left parts big enough to be recognized by eye. The new work by Mr. Nekrutenko, his graduate student, Samir R. Wadhawan, and colleagues from Emory University and the University of California at San Diego, brings Mr. Hostetler’s humble quest for bug juice to a new generation of complexity, allowing them to tally their catch from merely the tiniest drop of goo.
Much of the difficulty centers on the fact that scientists so far have learned the full genetic codes for only a fraction of the world’s estimated 10 million species, Mr. Nekrutenko says. That greatly complicates the job of bringing a platter of bug splatter into a research lab and deducing exactly which insects, and how many of them, were fluttering down the road when some car came plowing through.
The metagenomics challenge is easier, and now fairly commonplace, with simple organisms such as bacteria. It’s a lot tougher with more complex life forms such as insects, Mr. Nekrutenko says, because “most of the genome is junk,” meaning much of the genetic material in the puddle of smashed bug doesn’t help identify the species.
For their research into that problem, to be published online Friday by the journal Genome Research, Mr. Nekrutenko’s team collected samples off the front bumpers of vehicles that were driven from Pennsylvania to Connecticut and from Maine to New Brunswick in Canada. Many of the species couldn’t be identified, but the Nekrutenko group hopes its work will push forward the science.
Less certain is the real-world use of such analytical techniques. Perhaps, Mr. Nekrutenko suggests, it could help police investigators figure out where the car of a crime suspect had been driven. But, he concedes, “it’s not going to be very easy.”
The more obvious value harks back to Mr. Hostetler’s interest, as an ecologist, in getting a much better handle on the abundance and fluctuations of insect life beyond the commonly tracked pests such as mosquitoes and invasive beetles. And, Mr. Nekrutenko points out, the pursuit of such basic science is important just for the sake of knowledge and discovery.
Back in Florida, Mr. Hostetler credits Mr. Nekrutenko and his team with developing “an interesting technique” and says he’s not worried that he might no longer be the first name that comes to mind when people think of splattered-bug research.
“I’m not concerned about that at all,” he said. “When you think about any conservation issue, the more people that jump on certain topics, I think, the better.” –Paul Basken