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Posted on Aug 29, 2014

NC State Opens Student Entrepreneurship Headquarters

The Entrepreneurship Initiative (EI) at North Carolina State University will host the grand opening of Innovation Hall, home to the EI Garage and the Andy and Jane Albright Entrepreneurs Living and Learning Village, on Tuesday, September 2 at 5:30 p.m. at Innovation Hall on Centennial Campus. Media coverage of the event is invited.

Innovation Hall sidebarThe event marks the opening of the first Living and Learning Village on Centennial Campus and the first named residential community at NC State—the result of a $500,000 gift from Andy Albright, co-founder and president/CEO of National Agents Alliance, and his wife Jane. Albright Entrepreneurs Village will provide students who have entrepreneurial interests with the opportunity to live, learn, and collaborate with like-minded peers.

“It is an honor to have the Living and Learning Village named after us,” Albright said. “We both have a heart for helping kids in many areas and this is just another way that we can express our commitment to future generations. From childhood to today, we have both been big fans of NC State and this is one way we can continue to show our loyalty to the Wolfpack.”

Entrepreneurship students and alumni will also be on hand in the EI Garage Sept. 2 to display their latest ventures and products, including a device to aid smoking cessation and a point-of-sale platform that makes donating to local schools and charities easy. The EI Garage is a business creation and prototyping space that has all of the resources students need to turn their ideas into successful start-ups.

“The opening of Innovation Hall is an important next step in creating a pervasive culture of entrepreneurship at NC State,” said Dr. Tom Miller, senior vice provost for academic outreach and entrepreneurship at the university. “It’s a collaborative living and working space where student entrepreneurs across the university will develop solutions to problems that affect our world.”

Innovation Hall is located at 381 Initiative Way in Raleigh.  Additional information about the grand opening is available at


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Posted on Aug 28, 2014

Cities as a Glimpse of the Future

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Elsa Youngsteadt, a research associate in NC State’s Department of Entomology. The post regards an Aug. 27 paper lead-authored by Youngsteadt. More information on the paper is also available here. The post first ran on NC State’s Insect Ecology and Integrated Pest Management blog.

About a year ago, I found myself sitting ruefully in a patch of chiggery grass by the side of the road near the little town of Bahama, North Carolina, waiting for a tow truck. I had stuck the lab pickup firmly in a ditch. It was tilted at an embarrassing, sickening angle and had one wheel lodged against the mouth of a culvert. Helpful passers-by with chains and four-wheel drives kindly offered to pull me out, but really only made matters worse.

My memory is already fuzzy about the sequence of events, but somewhere in there—between slipping into the ditch, the failed rescue attempts, and the final arrival of the giant tow truck—I did actually hike into the woods and get what I came for: eight slender red maple branches, clipped from trees growing in NC State’s Hill Forest.

I found my way to this particular spot, ditch and all, by following the trail of a plant biologist who had collected maple branches there more than 40 years ago during the height of the Nixon administration and the Vietnam War. In those days, the forest was cooler. The fevered dog days of summer now average about 1.4 degrees C (about 2.5 degrees F) hotter than they did then—and that should make a difference to the trees and the insects that live on them.

Sad, bedraggled, gloomy scale infested red maple trees. Photo: S.D. Frank

Sad, bedraggled, gloomy scale infested red maple trees. Photo: S.D. Frank

Specifically, it ought to make a difference to gloomy scale insects. These little sap-sucking insects seem to like it hot. My colleague Adam Dale has been studying gloomy scales in the city of Raleigh, and he’s found that street trees in the hottest parts of the city have far more scales—sometimes 200 times more—than those in the cooler parts of the city.

The scales drink tree juices, so more scales are bad for trees.  A couple of degrees warming can make the difference between a stately shade tree and a sad, bedraggled specimen with dead branches, sparse leaves, and grimy, scale-encrusted bark.

We thought that if warming gives scales such a powerful boost in the city, global warming could do the same thing for scale insects in rural forests. But we still had no direct evidence that what happens in the city represents what happens in rural areas over time.

This seemed like hard evidence to get. Unlike birds and butterflies, the drab, millimeter-long gloomy scale has not invited enthusiastic long-term monitoring. But perhaps we could scavenge scale-insect information from another source—and this is why I became extremely grateful to scores of plant biologists like the one who archived a foot-long maple twig from Hill Forest in 1971.

These historical plant specimens are stored in collections known as herbaria, where they are affixed to stiff pieces of paperboard, labeled, and stacked in mothball-scented cabinets. It turns out that many of these old twigs still have scale insects intact, stuck firmly but inconspicuously to the spots where they once lived.

Gloomy scale covers preserved on an old herbarium specimen. Photo: E.K. Youngsteadt

Gloomy scale covers preserved on an old herbarium specimen. Photo: E.K. Youngsteadt

It made perfect sense that they would be there, but it still felt outlandish when, only 12 branches into my first search in the UNC Herbarium, there was a gloomy scale—the same species that burdens our urban red maples. It was beautifully preserved, looking like it was collected last week instead of 30 years ago. Even on 100-year old branches, the scales looked perfect.

So I counted them. And kept counting them on more than 300 historical specimens from the southeastern US, then matched up their abundance with historical temperatures for the year and location where each specimen was collected.

There it was: During relatively cool historical time periods, only 17% of branches had scale insects. But during relatively hot periods, 36% were infested. In other words, scale-infested branches were more than twice as common during hot periods than cool periods—exactly as we would expect if scale insects benefit from warming in rural forests as they do in the city. Furthermore, the most heavily infested twigs were ones that had grown at temperatures similar to those of modern urban Raleigh.

But the historical specimens weren’t the whole story. The past several years have been warmer than even the historically warm time periods, so to test our prediction, we needed to go back to places where those old branches were originally collected, and see if their scale infestations had actually gotten worse.

Careful records and herbarium tags from the past helped Elsa relocate the collection sites. Photo: E.K. Youngsteadt

Careful records and herbarium tags from the past helped Elsa relocate the collection sites. Photo: E.K. Youngsteadt

Thanks to the careful records of those past plant collectors, I was able to track down 20 of the forest sites across North Carolina where red maple branches were collected in the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s (and only put the truck in a ditch at one of them). At 16 of the 20 sites, gloomy scale populations were denser than they were on the original branches from the same locations. Overall, I found about five times more scales in 2013 than in the earlier decades.

This isn’t good news, but it’s also not time to panic about gloomy scales killing our forests. Although the rural scale insects clearly benefited from warming, just as they do in Raleigh, they still never got as abundant as the ones we see in town. The reasons for that difference are an open question (I have some guesses, but that’s a different story). So, although I’d put money on gloomy scales getting more common in rural North Carolina over the next several decades, I wouldn’t yet say how much more common.

But this really isn’t just about gloomy scale. It’s about cities as an advance guard of climate change. If we can look at scales’ response to urban warming and correctly predict their increased abundance due to global warming, can we do it for other organisms, too? Can we do it for functions, like pollination and biological control of pests?

I hope we can start watching urban ecosystems for problem insects and using that information to stand forewarned about future ecological changes in natural areas. The experiments we have made by paving our cities and making them heat up may have much more to tell us about how organisms will handle future warming.

This post is based on a new study: Youngsteadt, E., Dale, A.G., Terando, A.J., Dunn, R.R. and Frank, S.D. 2014. Do cities simulate climate change? A comparison of herbivore response to urban and global warmingGlobal Change Biology. doi: 10.1111/gcb.12692.

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Posted on Aug 27, 2014

Three Things You Didn’t Know About the Arachnids That Live on Your Face

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Michelle Trautwein, adjunct assistant professor of entomology at NC State and Schlinger Chair of Dipterology at the California Academy of Sciences.

You are not alone. Your body is a collection of microbes, fungi, viruses…and even other animals. In fact, you aren’t even the only animal using your face. Right now, in the general vicinity of your nose, there are at least two species of microscopic mites living in your pores. You would expect scientists to know quite a lot about these animals (given that we share our faces with them), but we don’t.

Here is what we do know: Demodex mites are microscopic arachnids (relatives of spiders and ticks) that live in and on the skin of mammals – including humans. They have been found on every mammal species where we’ve looked for them, except the platypus and their odd egg-laying relatives.

Often mammals appear to host more than one species, with some poor field mouse species housing four mite species on its face alone. Generally, these mites live out a benign coexistence with their hosts. But if that fine balance is disrupted, they are known to cause mange amongst our furry friends, and skin ailments like rosacea and blepharitis in humans. Most of us are simply content – if unaware – carriers of these spindly, eight-legged pore-dwellers.

Scientists from NC State, the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, and the California Academy of Sciences have just published a study that uncovers some previously unknown truths regarding these little-known mites – all the while providing a glimpse into even bigger mysteries that have yet to be solved.

1. Everyone has mites.

One of our most exciting discoveries is that these mites are living on everyone. Yes everyone (even you). This hasn’t always been obvious because it can be hard to find a microscopic mite living on one’s face. Traditional sampling methods (including scraping or pulling a piece of tape off your face) only return mites on 10-25 percent of adults. The fact that mites are found at a much higher rate on cadavers (likely because the dead are easier to sample more extensively and intrusively) was a hint that they might be much more ubiquitous.

As it turns out, you don’t have to actually see a mite to detect its presence. Dan Fergus, a mite molecular biologist at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, discovered that mite DNA could be sequenced from face scrapings regardless of whether a mite could be found under the microscope. And mite DNA was sequenced from every adult we sampled. Meaning that if you let us scrape your face, we’d find mite DNA on you as well. And where mite DNA is found, you’ll find mites.

2. Humans host two mite species that aren’t closely related to each other.

Demodex brevis. Image: Dan Fergus and Megan Thoemmes. Click to enlarge.

Demodex brevis. Image: Dan Fergus and Megan Thoemmes. Click to enlarge.

One of the most intriguing (and unsolved) face mite mysteries is how humans acquired these beasties. Perhaps these mites are a model system of co-evolution. It’s possible that as every species of mammal evolved, so did their mites – each one particularly adapted to its changed environs. In such a case, we would expect that we acquired our mites from our ape ancestors, and that the two species of human mites would be more closely related to each other than to any other mite species.

However, we’ve learned that the two mite species on our faces Demodex folliculorum (the long skinny one, pictured at the top of this post) and Demodex brevis (the short, chubby one, photo to the right) are actually not very close relatives to each other at all. Our analyses actually show that brevis is more closely related to dog mites than to folliculorum, the other human mite. This is interesting because it shows us that humans have acquired each of these mite species in different ways, and that there are two separate histories of how each of these mite species came to be on our face.

Though we don’t have enough evidence to say that we got one of our mites from man’s best friend, it does seem possible that one of the domestic animal species that we’ve long shared our lives with (be it dogs, goats or otherwise) may have gifted us their mites.

3. Mites can tell us about the historical divergence of human populations

How we acquired our mites is just one part of the story. We are also curious about how our mite species have evolved since they became our constant companions.

Demodex have likely been living with us for a long, long time; as early humans walked out of Africa and found their way around the globe, they probably carried their mites with them. So we want to know if Demodex DNA can provide a reflection of our own evolutionary history by allowing us to retrace those ancient paths of human migration.

So far, our analyses look promising. When looking at the DNA from one of our mite species, D. brevis, we found that mites from China are genetically distinct from mites from the Americas. East Asians and European populations diverged over 40,000 years ago and so far it looks like their mites did as well. On the other hand, D. folliculorum from China is indistinguishable from that of the Americas. Of the two Demodex species associated with humans, D. brevis lives deeper in your pores than folliculorum and is probably shared between people less readily, whereas D. folliculorum appears to enjoy global domination.

But as exciting as these results are, China and the US are just a small piece of the picture. We can’t wait to see what happens when we sample D. brevis from people all over the world! The ancient journey of Homo sapiens as retold by mites.

If reading this made your face a little itchy, rest easy. In an evolutionary perspective, humans and Demodex are old, old friends. You are in good company. And so are your mites.

The paper, “Ubiquity and diversity of human associated Demodex mites,” is published in PLOS ONE. Lead author of the paper is Megan Thoemmes, a Ph.D. student at NC State. Co-authors include Trautwein, Fergus, Julie Urban of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, and Rob Dunn, an associate professor of biology at NC State. The research was supported by NASA, under grant ROSES NNX09AK22G, and the National Science Foundation, under grant 0953390.

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