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Mothman Spotted in Ann Arbor

Hey! What’s up? My name is Trevor Smith, currently a senior at the fabulous Michigan State University, and I am lucky enough to be participating in an internship at Backyard Brains this summer. I am currently working on pheromone detection in moth antennae, specifically how sensitive male moths antennae are to the female pheromone used in locating a mate. Moths are renowned for their bushy antennae, which look much like combs. I have chosen to study the silkmoth (Bombyx Mori) as my test subject. They are very well studied, as their pupae are used for silk production. What’s novel about these moths is that the males can detect the female pheromone (Bombykol) from up to 11 km away! This is incredible as the pheromone is released and stays in the air for only a short time. The males sense the bombykol from great distances and travel to the secreting female to mate. It is very important that the male can detect the bombykol because once hatched from their cocoon they only have 5-10 days to mate before they die-try that one as a pickup line!


My task this summer will be to track the unique spikes from the antennae, and show just how sensitive the antennae are to this compared to other stimulation. It is my primitive hypothesis that the spikes from the pheromone will be easy to elicit upon first contact, and will linger for a short time after exposure. Silkmoths lifespans are very short and seasonal due to the metamorphic process they undergo, so although I am working with moths this summer, I am currently waiting for my moths to reveal themselves from their cocoons.


In the mean time I have been working with the main specimen of Backyard Brains, the beloved cockroach. As we all know from the remarkable SpikerBoxes BYB has created, we are now very easily and in a cost effective way able to track spikes off cockroach legs. (Thanks Trevor, your check’s in the mail-editor)  In preparation for my work with the moths I have been attempting to track spikes from cockroach antennae. Through the method known as an electroantennogram (EAG), in which you isolate the antennae and place two electrodes on both ends, I have been able to record spikes from these antennae.


Along the way I have encountered several hiccups, along with a learning curve to understand the basics of how these pheromone work in specific receptors in the antennae. From the simple problems, such as putting the wrong end of the aux cord into the Spikerbox, to figuring out how to properly use a Faraday cage to isolate the specimen I have been able to expand my knowledge on to properly conduct scientific methods and procedures. I am far from mastering this craft, but as Greg, a founder of BYB, has explained to us: Most people will quit after a few failures on the bench, it’s not until you use these failures to learn, that you will truly succeed. It is my full intention to continue upon my failures and strive to progress everyday on my project, and make meaningful goals each day.

Currently I am working on a new set-up based on an existing method to deliver olfactory stimulus to a cockroach antennae. In order to deliver a specific smell to an antenna you need a couple things. First you need constant airflow over the antennae to ensure you are not tracking the spikes from initial air stimulus. Second you need a way to deliver the stimulus under controlled setting, and third you need a way to combine the constant airflow and stimulus and be able to turn the stimulus on and off. Using an air mattress pumps, a series of clear tubing and a few self fabricated boxes I am reconstructing a way to deliver a stimulus to the antennae. I am currently still working on some of the kinks, but hope to soon track spikes specifically from an olfactory stimulus soon!

Air Pumps


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