James and the Giant Beetle Question

A very handsome beetle.

A very handsome beetle. credit: Carabidae of the World

James Pflug, fourth year PhD student, grew up in rural Missouri turning over rocks, catching and collecting insects. Messin’ with bugs is his favorite activity, and his parents encouraged him to pursue this passion as a career. Good thing too, because James is now working at Oregon State University Department of Integrative Biology with advisor David Maddison. In the Maddison Lab, James studies carabid beetles (ground beetles), specifically vivid metallic ground beetles. According to James, this beetle group is composed of the “most handsome” beetles. James is one of many scientists, phylogeneticists, around the world working to sort out the family tree of this group. This is not just a who-is-related-to-who question, but really a how is subgroup A of beetles related to subgroup B, and how do subgroups A and B related to other beetle subgroups?

James spends many days identifying boxes of ground beetles.

James spends many days identifying ground beetles.

How do you figure out how beetles are related to each other? Well, DNA of course! Just as you could have your own genome analyzed to understand your ancestry, James is collecting beetles from around the world, analyzing their genomes, and interpreting their ancestry. Scientists have already developed a variation assay to tell you what percent European, Asian, or Native American you may be, and James is working to develop the same thing for ground beetles! This will be a huge step forward for beetle phylogenetics AND think of all the beetles who will now know where their family originates! Just kidding about the latter, but you get the idea.

James started getting serious about bug study during his time as an undergraduate working in the Enns Entomology Museum at the University of Missouri. Almost as though he was in the right place at the perfect time, a position presented itself in the research lab of the museum’s curator, Robert Sites. Together with Arabidopsis researcher, Chris Pires, Sites was interested in the phylogenetics of biting water bugs, and they needed James to work in the lab. James got hands on experience extracting DNA from insects and performing next-generation genome sequencing and analysis. This experience, in time, was his ticket into the Maddison Lab at OSU where he is currently using next-generation sequencing techniques to understand the evolutionary history of ground beetles.

James performing DNA Isolation in the lab.

James performing DNA Isolation in the lab.

In addition to unpacking and reassembling the genome of ground beetles, James is committed to science communication. James knows that good science communicators are good teachers and they attract people to science and instill excitement for topics that might seem a bit dull on the surface, like beetle family trees. From personal experience, James is a captivating speaker who makes beetle phylogenetics thrilling and aesthetically pleasing. Fuzzy carabid beetles are handsome. Check out James’ blog, Beetlefacts.org, to learn more about this stunning group of beetles. They are truly diverse in habitat, appearance, and diet!

Tune you radio to 88.7 FM KBVR Corvallis this Sunday, May 1 at 7 PM to hear more about James’ research and journey to graduate school. Not from ‘round here? Stream the show live!

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