Hageman Distinguished Lecturer in Agricultural Biochemistry

May R. Berenbaum

Dr. May R. Berenbaum

Department of Entomology
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Member, National Academy of Sciences

November 16-17, 2009

Lecture: "Gut reactions—how insects eat plants"

Colloquium: “BSI—the case of the disappearing bees?"

About the speaker

May R. Berenbaum received a B.S. in biology (honors) from Yale and a PhD in ecology and evolutionary biology from Cornell. At that time she won a prize for popular science writing. She has continued writing popular articles, books and columns, which regularly receive recognitions, and recently won an award as an advocate for pollinator species (bees). Her entire faculty career has been at the University of Illinois in the Entomology department where she has served as Head since 1992. Early in her career she received a Young Investigator Award from NSF. She has received numerous honors, recognitions and awards for her scientific efforts, including a Guggenheim fellowship, the Mercer award from Ecological Society of America and the Founder's award from the Entomological Society of America. She has been designated a Fellow of AAAS and the Am. Acad. Arts & Sciences, and is a member of the American Philosophical Society.

Longterm themes of Professor Berenbaum's research have been biochemical interactions of plants with plant-eating insects, roles of cytochromes P450, and ecology and evolution with special reference to insects. Her work addresses insect/plant coevolution at multiple hierarchical levels. One of her recent NSF grants is titled "From tangled banks to Genbank: multiscale approaches to insect-plant inter-actions". Her broad interests extend to some practical aspects of agriculture and plant-insect interaction, including changing CO2 levels, genetic engineering and impacts of invasive species. Her output of both peer-reviewed and popular publications is large. She is sole author of five popular books, and has edited a comparable number, of a more rigorous scientific nature. In addition to contributing many chapters to meetings proceedings and other volumes, she is co-author of over 200 peer-reviewed articles, and even more popular items.

In 1994 Dr. Berenbaum was elected to the National Academy of Sciences and in 2005 she chaired the NAS committee on the status of pollinators in North America and edited the 2006 volume that they produced. A regular participant in Darwin Day activities, she recently spoke on "Darwin's parsnips", a return to her dissertation study of furanocoumarins in the Umbelliferae.

This year's Hageman lecture will focus on some of the roles of cytochromes P450 of insects. Plants produce toxins, insects detoxify them. The arms race continues and both plant and insect evolve. This affects the structure of both plant and insect communities in complex ways. The high host specificity of insects, and the diversity of toxic molecules produced by plants that must be detoxified by insects drives their coevolution. The P450 enzymes evolve, changing both structure and function in response to their changing substrates.

The colloquium will consider one of the larger ecological crises to hit agriculture in this century, the colony collapse syndrome of honey bees. When ~100 crops are highly dependent on a single pollinator species and that species declines precipitously, the impact will necessarily be widespread. The recent collapse revealed large knowledge gaps regarding both honeybees and other potential pollinators that are essential for maintenance of many species of flowering plants.