UArizona entomologist elected to National Academy of Sciences

Bruce Tabashnik

Bruce Tabashnik

Bruce Tabashnik, University of Arizona Regents Professor of Entomology, has been elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences.

Tabashnik, whose discoveries have advanced understanding of insect resistance to transgenic crops and helped to eradicate the invasive pink bollworm from the United States and Mexico, was one of 120 new members elected to the academy this month, along with 23 international members, in recognition of distinguished and continuing achievements in original research.

Membership in the National Academy of Sciences is considered one of the highest honors in science. The academy, which has 2,565 active members and 526 foreign associates, provides science, engineering and health policy advice to the federal government and other organizations.

"I'm thrilled and deeply honored to have the work I've loved to do considered worthy of recognition by the National Academy of Sciences," Tabashnik said. "I feel fortunate to have benefited from wonderful contributions of many outstanding collaborators, including a fantastic team at the University of Arizona."

"Bruce is obviously a renowned scientist and I'm of course thrilled for this recognition from the academy. Moreover, I am proud to serve alongside him at the university, where I've gotten to know him as an exceptional leader and father," said Shane Burgess, vice president for agriculture, life and veterinary sciences, and Cooperative Extension and the Charles-Sander Dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

Tabashnik has served as head of the Department of Entomology in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences since 1996 and is a member of the university's BIO5 Institute. He previously was a faculty member at the University of Hawaii and earned his doctorate at Stanford University.

Throughout his career, Tabashnik has authored 398 publications, which have been cited more than 34,000 times. His work has garnered international recognition, including the Louis Malassis International Scientific Prize for Agriculture and Food, and he was named a fellow of the Royal Society of Entomology and received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Entomological Society of America. 

A fundamental aspect of Tabashnik's research approach is developing, testing and applying evolutionary theory to delay adaptation of pests to environmentally friendly control methods. This entails mathematical modeling, often implemented with computer simulations, to explore potential outcomes under different scenarios, he said.

A global leader in the field of integrated pest management, Tabashnik has spent decades conducting pioneering research on strategies to delay insect resistance to proteins produced by the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis, or Bt, the most commonly used biological pesticide worldwide.

"My team discovered the first case of field-evolved pest resistance to insect-killing proteins from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis. This finding helped to alert the world that managing evolution of pest resistance to Bt is essential for sustaining its efficacy," he said.

That research was instrumental to the eradication of pink bollworm, an invasive pest that cost U.S. producers tens of millions of dollars in yearly control costs and yield losses in the U.S. and Mexico. 

In collaboration with cotton growers and U.S. Department of Agriculture partners, Tabashnik and his UArizona colleagues helped sustain the efficacy of Bt cotton against pink bollworm by establishing the "refuge strategy," in which insect host plants that do not produce Bt proteins are planted near Bt crops. These refuges allow pests that are susceptible to survive and mate with the few resistant insects that emerge, thus diluting their numbers and slowing the evolution of resistance. The strategy shaped by Tabashnik's work has become the primary approach used worldwide to delay the adaptation of insect pests to genetically engineered crops.

"Being one of the leaders of the multifaceted team that eradicated the pink bollworm from the cotton-growing areas of the continental U.S. and Mexico has been tremendously satisfying," Tabashnik said. "This invasive pest had plagued cotton growers in Arizona for more than a century."

According to a 2020 study, the eradication program saved U.S. cotton growers $192 million from 2014 to 2019. Through environmentally friendly approaches, it also helped reduce insecticides sprayed against all cotton pests by 82% and prevented the application of over a million pounds of insecticides per year in Arizona.

Tabashnik's work has taken him all over the world, including Nairobi, where he is currently working to develop and implement genetically engineered corn that can be used sustainably by smallholder farmers to improve food security in Africa.

"Dr. Tabashnik is an international powerhouse working at the intersection of entomology and applied evolutionary theory," said University of Arizona President Robert C. Robbins. "His research exemplifies our land-grant mission and has helped position the University of Arizona as a leader in supporting agricultural and environmental sustainability."

The process of nomination and election of new members of the National Academy of Sciences is complex and very competitive, said John Hildebrand, Regents Professor Emeritus of Neuroscience, who serves as international secretary for the academy. 

"Only members can nominate candidates, and that mainly is done through one of the 31 disciplinary sections of the NAS," he said. "One-hundred-twenty new members are elected each year through several rounds of balloting and an annual ranking endeavor conducted by membership committees of the six NAS classes. The criteria for ranking and voting include, first and foremost, a distinguished record of research. Because the NAS is a working academy – chartered to advise the nation on matters of science and technology – ethnic, gender, age and geographic diversity of nominees is also seriously considered."

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