bugging out

Rice University buzzes with discovery of new Houston-area insect

Houston, we have a new bug. Image courtesy of Rice University

One thing Houston isn’t lacking is bugs, but just our luck: a new species of insect has been discovered by biologists at Rice University.

Discovering a new life form entitles an entity to naming rights, thus this new insect — a nearly microscopic wasp — is dubbed Neuroterus (noo-ROH’-teh-rus) valhalla by Rice’s researchers. (If the “Valhalla” name rings a bell, that’s the legendary Rice pub.)

Graduate student Pedro Brandão-Dias, lead author of the paper on the species, first collected N. valhalla from the branches of a massive live oak tree near the campus bar in spring 2018. Years of research and study finally led to official discovery and naming this year.

Barely a millimeter long and spending 11 months of the year in a “crypt,” the valhalla wasp and other gall wasps, as they are known, trick their host tree into feeding and sheltering their young, Rice reports.

Fittingly, these wasps lay a biochemical cocktail along with their eggs (a Valhalla move, indeed). These chemicals coax the tree to form a crypt, or gall, around the egg. The gall shelters the egg and feeds larvae that hatch from it, Rice research adds. “Once they emerge, they only live three or four days,” Brandão said of the tiny insects in a statement. “They don’t eat. Their only purpose is to mate and lay eggs.”

More research is needed to determine how the February 2021 freeze affected these insects, and if global climate change will affect them further.

For now, Houston now has a new bug, one with memorable nomenclature. “It would have been a missed opportunity to not call it something related to Rice or Valhalla,” said Brandão.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

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Building Houston

 
 

These four Houstonians are among the best researchers in the state. Image via Getty Images

Four Houston scientists were named among a total of five Texas rising stars in research by the Texas Academy of Medicine, Engineering, Science & Technology, or TAMEST, last month.

The group will be honored at the 2023 Edith and Peter O’Donnell Awards by TAMEST in May. According to Edith and Peter O’Donnell Committee Chair Ann Beal Salamone, the researchers "epitomize the Texas can-do spirit."

The Houston winners include:

Medicine: Dr. Jennifer Wargo

A physician and professor of surgical oncology and genomic medicine at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, Wargo was named a 2023 honoree for her discoveries surrounding the "important connection between treatment outcomes and a patient’s gut microbiome," according to a statement from TAMEST.

Engineering: Jamie Padgett

The Stanley C. Moore Professor of Engineering at Rice University, Padgett was honored for her work that aims to "enhance reliability and improve the sustainability of critical community infrastructure" through developing new methods for multi-hazard resilience modeling.

Physical sciences: Erez Lieberman Aiden

As a world-leading biophysical scientist and an associate professor of molecular and human genetics at Baylor College of Medicine, is being honored for his work that has "dramatically impacting the understanding of genomic 3D structures." He is working with BCM to apply his findings to clinical settings, with the hope that it will eventually be used to treat disease by targeting dark matter in the body.

Technology innovation: Chengbo Li

As a geophysicist at ConocoPhillips, Li is being recognized for innovations in industry-leading Compressive Seismic Imaging (CSI) technology. "This CSI technology allows the oil and gas industry to produce these seismic surveys in less time, with less shots and receivers, and most importantly, with less of an environmental impact," his nominator Jie Zhang, founder and chief scientist of GeoTomo LLC, said in a statement.


James J. Collins III at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas was also named this year's rising star in the biological sciences category for his research on schistosomiasis, a disease that impacts some of the world’s poorest individuals.

The O'Donnell Awards have granted more than $1.5 million to more than 70 recipients since they were founded in 2006. Each award includes a $25,000 honorarium and an invitation to present at TAMEST’s Annual Conference each year, according to TAMEST's website.

The awards expanded in 2002 to include both a physical and biological sciences award each year, thanks to a $1.15 million gift from the O’Donnell Foundation in 2022.

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