Spread of plant diseases by insects can be described by equations that model interplanetary gravity

September 1, 2006

Researchers from Penn State University and the University of Virginia show that the spread of diseases by insects can be described by equations similar to those that describe the force of gravity between planetary objects. Their findings are detailed in the September issue of The American Naturalist.

Insects tend to transmit diseases in the course of feeding on plants, and their movement between plants is influenced by plant quality (how good of a meal they'll get) and the distance between plants, or, how far they'll have to travel to get to the next meal, explain Matthew Ferrari, Jessica Partain, Janis Antonovics, and Ottar Bjornstad.

"It turns out insects are more likely to move shorter distances between better plants," write the authors. "Interestingly, then, the probability of disease being passed between two plants goes up if they are closer and/or better, which parallels the stronger gravity between closer and larger planets."

The researchers tracked a fungal disease spread by bees and moths in the course of pollinating and feeding on nectar from white campion flowers at the University of Virginia's Mountain Lake Biological Station. As predicted by the behaviour of insects, the disease was more likely to spread shorter distances between plants that had many flowers.

"This implies that knowledge of insect behaviour can lead to better prediction of where disease will spread," explain the authors. In fact, these patterns are not limited to diseases of plants or diseases carried by insects. Bjornstad and colleagues have previously shown that similar patterns describe the spread of measles among cities, because people tend to travel more between large towns or only short distances.

Source: University of Chicago

Explore further: Researchers discover contenders in molecular arms race of major plant disease

Related Stories

'Tree of life' for 2.3 million species released

September 19, 2015

A first draft of the "tree of life" for the roughly 2.3 million named species of animals, plants, fungi and microbes—from platypuses to puffballs—has been released.

Wasps may be battling ash-killing beetles

September 16, 2015

Five years ago, a Michigan Technological University entomologist set loose a swarm of tiny wasps in the woods around Calumet, Mich. His aim: to combat the invasion of a shiny, green beetle deadly to America's ash trees. Now ...

Boreal forests challenged by global change

August 20, 2015

Management of boreal forests needs greater attention from international policy, argued forestry experts from the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), Natural Resources Canada, and the University of ...

Recommended for you

Chimpanzees shed light on origins of human walking

October 6, 2015

A research team led by Stony Brook University investigating human and chimpanzee locomotion have uncovered unexpected similarities in the way the two species use their upper body during two-legged walking. The results, reported ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.