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Spotlight on Young Researchers: Understanding the impact climate change has on crop-threatening insects



A type of insect known as whitefly spreads plant viruses and has devastating effects on the vegetables that we depend on and thanks to climate change their negative impact on agriculture is set to increase in the future. Current methods to protect crops depend on delicate relationships between whiteflies and their natural enemies, our crops, and microbial communities, a delicate balance threatened by climate change. Researchers are working with a ‘climate in the lab’ to get a better understanding of what could happen, with the ultimate goal to generate solutions to protect food security.

Researchers trying to gain insight into how future climate conditions affect living organisms generally face the challenge of how to model these impacts, especially in nature.

“Understanding how biological systems respond to climate change is difficult because the only way to be sure in how living organisms will respond to the future climate is to expose them to the future climate which is not possible in nature. Also, designing a realistic experiment is difficult,” explains biologist and entomologist Milan Milenovic.

A great challenge in tackling climate change effects on such complex biological systems is knowing enough about the impacts and mechanisms behind them to be able to respond: How can we fix a system if we do not know how it works?

“My research aims to solve the challenge by recreating the climate of the future in so called climate chambers. These are the sophisticated machines that can accurately create any climatic condition in the lab. When programmed with our best predictions of the future climate scenarios we can study how plants, whiteflies, natural enemies and microbes will interact in the future.”

A whitefly
The whitefly bacterial community

Whiteflies: Expected to expand to new areas

Milan Milenovic

First results of Milan’s study show that the whiteflies that harm our agricultural production will reproduce dramatically faster in the climate expected in 40 years and colonize new regions – meaning the negative impact on crops will increase.

“We have shown that creating the realistic future climate in the lab is possible. This allowed us to measure the risk that whiteflies will pose to our agriculture in the following decades. Whiteflies will develop nearly twice as fast as they do today, and we need to be ready.”

“Knowing the exact effects that climate change will have, gives us the chance to adapt and improve our current crop protection practices and develop new ones. It helps us direct the efforts in the right direction and focus on the challenges before they start having a severe impact on our food security.”

Milan Milenovic is a biologist and entomologist in the 3rd year of his AFR PhD at the Luxembourg Institute of Science and Technology (LIST) and the University of Catania in Italy.


On his research in one sentence

“Effects of climate change on the interactions around an important insect pest of our crops.”

On his research, peer to peer

“Besides studying the effects of the future climate on the multitrophic interactions centred around whiteflies, we aim to explore the molecular mechanisms behind the observed effects. To do this, we take the transcriptomics approach to understand which biochemical pathways in plants, whiteflies and microbial community of whiteflies are modified and how.”

On why he became a researcher

“Since the young age I have been amazed by the natural world, especially with plants. I always had those curious questions are difficult to answer. As I grew up the questions grew with me and the answers provoked new ones. Working in research deeply fulfils my quest for learning more.”

What he loves about science

“I love the feeling of taking a journey through the unknown, following the unclear path that ultimately leads to new discoveries that solve everyday problems and change the world for the better. There is a lot learn about the natural world and I am excited to take part in it.”

Where he sees himself in 5 years

“I see myself in research. There is so much that we do not understand and with rapid technological advancements we are in a better position than ever to push the borders of human knowledge and I cannot be more excited to be a part of it!”

On mentors with an impact

“My mentors prof. Dr. Carmelo Rapisarda, Dr. Michael Eickermann, Dr. Jürgen Junk and prof. Dr. Lucien Hoffmann, all with different fields of expertise, support and inspire me by providing their unique perspectives, critical opinions and valuable advices. Their multidisciplinary support in navigating the muddy waters of research makes the journey very enjoyable.”

On choosing Luxembourg for his research

“I like the openness, proactive and science-driven decision making in Luxembourg. It is very inspiring to be in an environment where creating knowledge is valued and where the commitment exists for finding sustainable solutions even for the most challenging problems. I see LIST, with its highly qualified, multidisciplinary staff and cutting-edge scientific instruments as an excellent place for research. Another important factor for choosing Luxembourg is the very international environment, both at work and everywhere else in the country!”

Photos provided by Milan Milenovic

About Spotlight on Young Researchers

Spotlight on Young Researchers is an annual FNR campaign where we shine a Spotlight on early-career researchers across the world with a connection to Luxembourg. Over 100 features have been published since the first edition in 2016.

Browse them below!

Milan Milenovic