Evolutionary Ecology and Biodiversity Conservation
Molecular genetic mechanisms underlying stress response of insects
Insects live in an uncertain and variable environment and are subjected to multiple stressors during their lifetimes. These include abiotic stressors, such as temperature, light, and water, and biotic stressors like predators and pathogens. Additionally, human induced factors such as chemical pollutants, pesticides, and invasive species are major stressors affecting insects today. Insects respond to stressors in three different ways: by evolutionary adaptation, phenotypic plasticity, and dispersal. These responses alter interactions of insects with their environment, as well as with other organisms in the ecosystem. Our lab primarily works with aphids, small sap sucking insects that cause damage to plants by feeding and transmitting viruses. We use bioinformatics, genetics, and genomics to understand the molecular mechanisms underlying plastic as well as adaptive responses of insects to environmental stressors.
Sustainable Pest Insect Control
Pest insects cause damage to crop plants and threaten food security by reducing crop yield. The annual economic losses due to pest insects in agriculture are in billions of dollars worldwide. Typically, control and management of crop insects is done using pesticides. However, the pesticides are a hazard for the environment, other organisms in the ecosystem, and human health. Therefore, health and environment friendly methods of pest insect control are needed, which calls for an understanding of the ecology and evolution of pest insects.
Healthy ecosystems are essential for biodiversity conservation. Insect pollinators play a key role in the sustainability of ecosystems by pollinating and regenerating flowering plants. Insect pollinators are declining rapidly due to anthropogenic factors such as the use of pesticides, habitat loss, changes in land use, and the introduction of exotic/invasive species. A further decline in pollinator insects is expected in the wake of climate change. However, data on the status and trends of insect pollinators is limited and geographically largely restricted to Europe and North America. In India, the ecology and trends of insect pollinators are understudied, which makes it difficult to assess their conservation status. We plan to study the ecology of native insect pollinators and build a plant-insect pollinator network. We will use network analysis to quantify the structure of the plant-insect pollinator community and network models to predict the stability and resilience of the ecosystem.
Biodiversity assessment, monitoring, and conservation of Insects
Insects are the most diverse organisms on earth and play a crucial role in man-made as well as natural ecosystems. They are a major food source for many higher organisms in the food chain. Their interactions with plants and other animals play a crucial role in the functioning of ecosystems. However, insects have received very little attention from researchers and are understudied. Especially in the tropics, the biology, ecology, and conservation status of many insect species is unknown. Many tropical insect species are disappearing at an alarming rate. It is thought that some may go extinct even before their discovery by humans. Therefore, it is essential to assess insect diversity, distribution, abundance, and conservation status in the tropics. The Western Ghats of India are a biodiversity hotspot. However, the northern part of the Western Ghats is less explored and studied. Our research will focus on biodiversity assessment, monitoring, and conservation of insects in the Northern Western Ghats. We plan to develop tools and technology that will help in the assessment, long term monitoring, and conservation of insects.