Russian-Danish Laboratory of Entomology established at UTMN
Alexey Solodovnikov (Denmark), the curator of the collection of beetles at the Museum of Natural History of Denmark, professor at the University of Copenhagen, is conducting research at the UTMN X-BIO Institute this summer.
- Why did you choose Tyumen to conduct the study?
- It’s quite a simple story. I’m Russian and I’m always interested in the latest science-related development that happens here. I’ve been studying the fauna of Russia for a long time, even after leaving the country. I have heard a lot about the University of Tyumen specifically that Life Sciences are actively developing here. In 2019, I was on an expedition and, while passing Tyumen, met with my old friend - entomologist Dmitry Lomakin. Then it turned out that Dmitry and I have a common friend - the Vice-Rector of the University of Tyumen, Andrey Tolstikov. The Vice-Rector and I had a meeting and we discussed the activities and plans of the X-BIO Institute. There was a lot of overlap in our interests, so I joined.
- What are you working on currently?
- Now we are developing a joint mirror laboratory* based at X-BIO in conjunction with my research group at the Danish Museum of Natural History. This is a laboratory for the taxonomy of insects, for evolution, for their practical significance. A lot of young scientists and students are involved. At the moment, the key researchers of the laboratory are Maria Salnitskaya, with whom I was a co-director when she was a graduate student at St. Petersburg State University, and Igor Orlov, Ph.D., Copenhagen. The young scientists are postdocs in the X-BIO mirror laboratory. The lab is growing - a Master’s degree student, a graduate student, and an assistant have joined. We are engaged in various aspects of the taxonomy of rove beetles, issues of their potential introduction as entomophages in agricultural practice. We work on the latest genetic technologies, for example, we carry out accurate species diagnostics using DNA barcodes at the modern level. The team has an impressive workspace here and high-quality microscopic equipment. The distance is not an issue. I frequently visit Russia and the team comes to Denmark. We regularly hold videoconferences and laboratory meetings via Zoom.
*Mirror laboratories are laboratories formed in partnership with foreign scientific groups that are already conducting similar research in scientific or scientific and educational centers abroad.
- You have plans to work with pupils?
- Yes, civil science or citizen science is a growing phenomenon in Russia. It is a concept of conducting scientific research involving a wide range of volunteers who do not have specialized training. Schoolchildren are the main force in this movement. As I see it, it is important for future students to gain experience with scientific activity and learn to conduct research. For example, Maria Salnitskaya gives lectures at a school about entomology and answers pupils’ questions. There needs to be more programs that help the younger generation to learn about science and give them excess to lectures. Hopefully, we could organize outings into nature and help students observe and study insects. Now, with the help of IT technologies, observing nature is quite simple. With a phone, any student can document and track different types of insects. Then artificial intelligence processes this data and archives these observations in a centralized database. Pupils can actively help scientists collect observations and facts on ants, butterflies, beetles, and other well-visible insects on a massive scale.
- As far as we know, there will be enough material to study for hundreds of years to come - the world of insects is so diverse. But what is the practical benefit of this study?
- Yes, there are a great many insects in general, and especially the rove beetles, which are our object of study. They prevail in numbers and biomass in any natural biogeocenosis and agrocenosis (ecosystem created by man under the influence of agriculture). However, every species counts. Even removal of one from the ecosystem can lead to ecological interactions being immediately disrupted. This can happen if some species disappear due to the influence of unsafe agrocenosis pest control methods. The imbalance will negatively affect the harvest in the long term. Therefore, we need to find out the species composition, the diversity of insects both in the natural environment and in the agrocenosis. There are so many Staphylinidae, they are so poorly studied in Russia that in order to get to this problem, we need to carry out fundamental research: hold expeditions, study morphology, molecular properties of species in order to at least accurately determine them.
Second, among rove beetles and other little-known insects, there are probably potential species that can be effective entomophages — biological agents for the protection of plants or even farm animals. For example the Aleochara beetles. This is a very large genus of rove beetles, the larvae of which parasitize dipterans — flies. Flies cause a lot of harm to cattle: it is very difficult to get rid of flies at pastures. Introducing the Aleochara beetles into this environment will reduce the number of flies.
Another example of successful biocontrol is the small rove beetles from the Ateta genus, which are effective predators in greenhouses. For example, these beetles are released on strawberry fields and they suppress the number of harmful insects that destroy the harvest. The study of the biology and characteristics of beetles can be beneficial in agricultural complexes and private farms. They can be used in the effective cultivation of crops, eliminating pests, and forgoing poisons to combat pests. These two examples show the potential and benefit of the study.
- As far as we know, it is extremely difficult to get such species today — you need to order them.
- Yes, it is not widely implemented, partly because there are no Russian suppliers. International companies dominate the global and Russian markets. I think that many agricultural workers are not aware that there are such biosafety methods of pest control, or that they are quite effective. And here, again, you can return to the question of why educational programs are needed in schools, at plant protection stations, so that people just know that there are science-intensive ways to control pests.
- Do you enjoy living in Denmark? Perhaps from there, from Europe, it is more convenient to get to the territories you are exploring?
- I have been living in Denmark for a long time. I really like the culture, the art, the museums, and the university. Most importantly the nature and the sea. I found myself in the habit of sea fishing. I am satisfied with my work in Denmark. But at some stage in my career, I wanted to study and develop something in Russia. I have always been associated with Russia, despite working abroad since 2002, first in the USA, then in Denmark. I identify as a Russian scientist. At first, there was no time to work in Russia, since it is quite difficult to build a career and get a permanent job in an academic institution abroad, so I focused on that. Today the situation has changed here too — in my opinion, now Russia has great prospects, especially for young scientists. Moreover, in a university like the University of Tyumen, where there is a development strategy, and great efforts are being made to develop and grow. Being a part of the scientific growth in X-BIO is interesting, I can allocate time for this, and this is a productive collaboration. The more diverse the sources of tasks, methods, and funding in science, the more young people from different countries are involved, the more effective result. In addition, for me to travel to Russia is not a problem even under COVID-19 restrictions. As a Russian citizen, I can always come here.
In 2020, Maria Salnitskaya received a grant from the Russian Science Foundation (RSF) No. 20-74-00130 for the Implementation of the largest family of arthropods - roast beetles (Insecta: Coleoptera: Staphylinidae) as an effective model group for monitoring soils of the steppe and forest-steppe zones of Russia. The grant was organized within the President's program of research projects for Initiative research by young scientists.
Source: UTMN Department of Strategic Communications