Monarch butterfly research publication receives prestigious award

Headshot of Niranjana Krishnan.
Niranjana Krishnan.

AMES, Iowa – A research publication by a recent Iowa State University graduate in toxicology has won recognition as the best article of 2020 in the journal “Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry.”

Niranjana Krishnan (‘21 PhD) is the leading author of the article that presents findings on the effect of insecticides on monarch butterflies. The article, first published in January 2020, reports on a portion of her PhD research conducted at Iowa State.  

Selection criteria for this award from the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry (SETAC), which publishes the journal, requires research to demonstrate relevant and creative science that will have an impact on the paper’s field. The publication’s editorial board nominates and selects the winning article. As part of the award, Krishnan received a cash prize and travel support to attend the SETAC 2021 annual meeting in November when the award will be officially presented.

Krishnan said she was excited and a little stunned when she received the phone call from the SETAC editor-in-chief about being chosen as the recipient.

“I was hesitant to pick up the call because I didn’t recognize the number,” Krishnan said. “It’s a very good journal in my field and it’s very nice to get this award at this stage of my career. I’m glad I got it for this paper because it was an incredible amount of work.”

Monarch butterflies have experienced declining population numbers for decades and are being considered for listing as a threatened or endangered species by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. To increase the eastern population, research has shown it is important to plant more milkweed on the agricultural landscapes of the Midwestern states.

“Monarch caterpillars feed on milkweed, and the monarch adults lay their eggs on milkweed,” Krishnan said. “To stabilize the eastern population, you need to plant milkweed near agricultural fields, which could expose monarchs to insecticides.”

Krishnan’s research focused on the effects six routinely used insecticides would have on monarch larvae. She compared the toxicity of the insecticides to the concentration to which larvae were exposed in the field.

Toxicology is something Krishnan has been working on since starting her doctorate program. She said her interest was piqued by Steven Bradbury, professor in the Iowa State Toxicology Program and Department of Entomology, and one of the article’s co-authors.

Bradbury was elated to hear of Krishnan’s selection for the SETAC award. “Many professors could go through their whole career and never get this kind of recognition for a publication,” he said. “Niranjana’s research is very complex and represents a huge amount of diligent, patient study. I, and our program, are very proud of her.”

Krishnan is currently a research assistant professor at the Missouri University of Science and Technology, where she is pursuing a career as an invertebrate toxicologist specializing in insects. Instead of testing insects themselves, Krishnan wants to find other methods to study them.

“There are a lot of insect species for which we have no toxicity data, mostly because it is difficult, or there is inadequate information, to rear and treat them,” Krishnan said. “My goal in insect toxicology is moving away from testing species and moving toward using computer models with other kinds of data to predict chemical risks.”

Other co-authors to the article were Joel Coats, Distinguished Professor of Entomology at Iowa State, Keith Bidne and Richard Hellmich of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service, and Yang Zhang at the Beijing Great-Agri Institute of Pesticide Technology.