Sep 10, 2015 | By Kira

If you haven’t heard of the polyphagous shot hole borer yet, consider yourself lucky. The flying beetle is smaller than a sesame seed, but responsible for infecting and killing more than 200 species of trees in Southern California region, and researchers from the University of California Riverside predict that hundreds of thousands of trees are already at risk. While no known cure exists, a 3D printed trap is helping scientists track the bug and understand its behaviour so that a permanent solution can be found.

The beetle is native to Southeast Asia and was first noticed in Southern California three years ago. With no natural predators on this side of the world, it has quickly spread through San Diego, Orange County and Los Angeles, and is known to affect various types of trees such as sycamore, oak, avocado, cottonwood and box elder.

It works quickly and efficiently by eating its way into tree bark and infecting the tree with a fungus known as Fusarium euwallacea. As the fungus spreads, it damages the tissues that move water from the roots, eventually killing the tree. The condition is further complicated by the variety of trees that are affected: some species die immediately, others can live for years, so a one-size-fits-all cure is unlikely. So far, scientists have been testing different insecticides and fungicides to see if they can kill either the beetle, the fungus, or both, but without much luck. The problem for these researchers is that once the beetle enters the tree, they don’t quite know what it does. Short of chopping down each tree and opening it up, they haven’t been able to gather this crucial information.

Now, UC Riverside has collaborated with the Huntington Botanical Gardens and 3D printing company Deezmaker to create small 3D printed traps, which can be clipped onto an infected tree and follow the trajectory of individual beetles. “Entomology is reliant on trapping”, said R. Duncan Selby, a postdoctoral researcher. “The fact that this allows us to come up with prototypes very quickly is going to revolutionize how we study invasive species throughout North America.”

While they can’t literally go into the tree with it, they can insert a beetle, catch it (or its offspring), and study its behavior and condition. In addition, the traps measure how much boring the bug has done by collecting discarded sawdust, and how much water the tree has lost.

The water measurements are an important indicator, since one theory suggests that the fungus needs moisture to grow. John Kabashima, a plant expert with the UC Co-operative Extension and researcher on the team, says that if this is the case, the current droughts in California may have actually helped to save some trees. To test this theory, UC Irvine campus is cutting off water to a test section of the campus to see how the trees are infected.

The 3D printed traps have been a big step forward for the researchers, allowing them to build more intricate and cost efficient designs than ever before. Each trap costs between sixty cents to a dollar thirty to print—an incredibly inexpensive contribution to what has become an environment epidemic. “It allows you to design traps that is exactly what you want…as long as you have someone who knows how to program the bloody thing,” said UC Riverside professor Richard Stouthammer jokingly. The university purchased its own 3D printer for $1,300, and luckily for Stouthammer, there seem to be some very qualified CAD modelers on their team.

“Without these 3D printed traps, our research wouldn’t be possible,” says plant pathologist Akif Eskalen. “Utilizing these traps, we are going to be able to find out whether we are able to control this beetle and fungus or not.” Yet even with the 3D printed traps on their side, Eskalen isn’t sure a cure will ever be found: “seems to be a little bit too late. A the end, we’re going to have to learn to live with it.”

In order to share their findings with the wider community and hopefully find a way to slow down the bugs, or at least treat and protect vulnerable trees, UC Irvine and the University of California’s Division of Agruiculture and Natural Resources are co-hosting a symposium on the Pholyphagous Shot Hole Borer today. The workshop will feature speakers at the forefront of the debate, and will discuss how 3D printing and other technologies can help put an end to this growing epidemic. 



Posted in 3D Printing Applications



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