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Cicada science and car schooling

by Bethany Halford
June 5, 2021 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 99, Issue 21


Bugging out every 17 years

A cicada from Brood X poses on a stick in Indiana, May 2021.
Credit: Leigh Krietsch Boerner/C&EN
Cicada serenade: Brood X emerges after 17 years underground.

There’s been a lot of buzz about periodical cicadas. After 17 years underground, Brood X, the largest group of these noisy, red-eyed insects, began emerging last month in 15 US states. Most people dodge the cacophonous critters, which haphazardly fly around attempting to mate, but many scientists seek cicadas out.

Entomologist Marianne Alleyne is fascinated with the nanostructures on cicadas’ wings. Alleyne, who teaches at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, says that the wings of annual cicadas, which emerge every year, are covered with tiny nanopillars that kill bacteria and give the wings antireflective properties. Periodical cicadas’ wing structures are not nearly as interesting, she says: they just have some bumps (Adv. Mater. Interfaces 2020, DOI: 10.1002/admi.202000112).

This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective, Alleyne explains. Annual cicadas live aboveground for several months, so they need to keep their wings free of bacteria, and they need to evade predators to reproduce. “Periodical cicadas, they just come out, they mate, they lay eggs, they’re done in 3 weeks,” so their wings don’t need the same functionality, she tells Newscripts.

Periodical cicadas are also easy to catch, Alleyne says. To catch annual cicadas, Alleyne says she goes outside in the evening to gather the emerging nymphs and puts them in her basement. “I have some curtains that they absolutely love, and I put them on those curtains and then they crawl up during the night,” she says. “The next morning I come back in, and they’re beautiful adults, but they’re still not really able to fly, so they don’t really go anywhere in my house. Then I collect the wings.”

Terry Gullion isn’t a biologist, but he’s developed an interest in cicada wings. The West Virginia University chemistry professor specializes in solid-state nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy. Five years ago, Gullion was sweeping cicada carcasses from his deck after Brood V emerged from their septendecimal slumber in West Virginia, and he decided to use his expertise to study the chemical composition of their wings.

Gullion expected to find proteins and lipids in the wings, but he and his son John, who was a high school student at the time, also found chitin. This surprised them because locust wings don’t contain chitin. The Gullions speculated that the heavy chitin makes it tough for cicadas to fly long distances like locusts do (J. Phys. Chem. B 2017, DOI: 10.1021/acs.jpcb.7b05598).

The wings look big, Terry Gullion says, “but they’re extremely thin.” To gather enough material for more research, he plans to travel to Maryland to gather 1,000 Brood X cicadas in the coming weeks, 10 times as many as he collected in 2016.

He hopes information from his NMR studies can help others make materials that, like cicada wings, are thin and strong. “We always look to nature to help guide us,” he says. “It’s had the benefit of time to find out what really works.”


Office space with cupholders

A man sits in the driver's seat of a car with a small child in the back seat.
Credit: Dean Tantillo
Are we there yet? Dean Tantillo's daughter often joins him while he teaches graduate-level organic chemistry courses.

University of California, Davis, chemistry professor Dean Tantillo brings new meaning to the phrase “zooming around in the car.” The combination of no office space in his house, curious young children, and limited childcare forced Tantillo, who has been teaching remotely this academic year, to log on from the front seat of his car for classes and meetings.

“It’s like being in an airplane, but you’ve got more space,” Tantillo tells Newscripts of his car schooling. He uses a small dry-erase board for teaching and a power inverter to plug his laptop into the car’s cigarette lighter. He also has a small tray that attaches to the steering wheel where he can rest his computer. Most days, Tantillo teaches from his driveway, but sometimes he parks outside the city library for a change of scenery.

Tantillo’s 2-year-old daughter occasionally naps in the backseat while he’s teaching or in a meeting. He says seeing her on screen is a good reminder that being a parent is not easy, particularly with the childcare challenges of the pandemic. “I don’t mind my students knowing that I’m a human,” he says.

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