Penn State Berks student receives top awards for spotted lanternfly research

Written by Lisa R. Baldi, Director of Strategic Communications at Penn State Berks.

Erin Horack, a first-year biotechnology major at Penn State Berks, recently won two first place awards for her research studying the spotted lanternfly. She was named a 2021 Regeneron Science Talent Search Scholar and she also took first place honors at the National FFA Agriscience competition for her research.

For the Regeneron Science Talent Search competition, Horack’s project was titled Lycorma delicatula‘s mitochondrial DNA in relation to L. delicatula’s feeding pattern based on monosaccharide concentrations of host plants. Her study examined the genetic basis of the feeding preferences of the invasive Spotted Lanternfly.

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She also took top honors at the National FFA Agriscience competition for her individual research in the Environmental Services and Natural Resource Systems: Division 5 category, which she presented at the Agriscience Fair Competition during the 2021 Pennsylvania Farm Show.

Horack interest in studying the spotted lanternfly began when she was a freshman at Conrad Weiser High School and her agriculture science teacher discussed the invasive Asian insect that was discovered in the Pennsylvania in 2014 and has spread to several counties and neighboring states. She was surprised that little was known about the spotted lanternfly, which causes serious damage in trees, vines, crops and many other types of plants.

According to the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, the spotted lanternfly is a huge threat to the Pennsylvania agriculture industry. The economic impact could total in the hundreds of millions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of jobs for those in the grapes, apple, hops, and hardwood industries.

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Horack’s project for the FFA competition investigated whether the carbohydrate ratio of plant sap could be used to predict the feeding preference of the invasive spotted lanternfly fly. Her results showed that plants that seem to attract more spotted lanternfly, such as the tree of heaven and sugar maple, have higher sucrose and lower glucose and fructose concentrations. This research is useful in predicting which tree species are most likely to face serious damage from the spotted lanternfly.

She also used mitochondrial DNA sequencing to compare the spotted lanternfly found in Pennsylvania with those found in Korea, Japan, and China. She found that Pennsylvania spotted lanternflies were more closely related to those in Korea and Japan, illustrating that this insect can adapt quickly, according to Horack.

Photos courtesy of Erin Horack.

She said her research has had its setbacks, including the difficulty she faced with growing the spotted lanternfly in the lab. She explains that she took spotted lanternfly eggs from trees where they were feeding and put them in incubators, but they didn’t survive for long.

Currently, Horack is looking forward to being able to continue conducting research at Penn State Berks. With more opportunity for lab-centered inquiry – as opposed to field-based research – her future studies will take her away from the spotted lanternfly.

When asked why she chose Penn State Berks, Horack explains, “Penn State Berks has a lot to offer. I wanted to be a Penn Stater all my life, and I wanted to start small. I also wanted to get the most value for my tuition dollars. But most importantly, I wanted to go to Penn State.” She comments that both her parents are Penn State alumni. In addition to her academics and research, Horack is a member of the women’s soccer team.

“I really like it here. There’s a family atmosphere and the professors are interested in what you’re interested in and getting to know the students,” Horack adds.

Her ultimate goal after graduation is to conduct research that helps people and benefits society. She plans to work with DNA and genetics research in the pharmaceutical or agricultural industry, and then eventually go to grad school.

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