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Researchers attack spruce budworm using chemistry

At a glance
The intern

Zhen Xiao from Beihang University, China

Hosted by

Professor David Magee at the University of New Brunswick’s Department of Chemistry

The research

Investigating nontoxic pest control agents to manage the spread of spruce budworm

Forests across eastern North America are increasingly threatened by the proliferation of the spruce budworm. By eating through leaves, cones, and flowers, budworms weaken the wood of balsam fir and spruce trees, leaving them susceptible to disease and death.

A recent outbreak of spruce budworm infestation in Quebec contributed to millions of dollars in lost revenue potential for Canada’s lumber industry and threatened forests in northern New Brunswick. This prompted researchers at the University of New Brunswick (UNB) and Carleton University to partner in the development of solutions to ward off the forest pest.

This summer, Mitacs Globalink research intern Zhen Xiao is getting a first-hand look at how chemistry could provide one of those solutions. Zhen is researching the production of pest control agents made from the spruce budworm’s own reproductive signals — known as pheromones — to prevent potential invasion.  

When the pheromones are applied to a tree in an infested forest, the male budworm becomes unable to find females during mating season. This acts as a pest control agent by limiting the budworm’s ability to successfully reproduce.

Zhen and his professor are using laboratory-scale chemistry to produce large volumes of a synthetic version of the pheromone. The research is an important step towards mass production of the pheromone to control spruce budworm populations across eastern North America. The hope is that forestry workers could prevent future infestations like the one in Quebec from taking hold.

The internship has opened Zhen’s eyes to a new possibility for his academic pursuits. “The University of New Brunswick is a great place to do research,” he says. “The department has a lot of high-quality equipment and good facilities for research. But what I like most about Canada and the university is the people. My professor is very kind, and the other students are helpful.

“It’s clear to me that everyone cares a lot about the research and doing their best. I would definitely consider returning to New Brunswick for my master’s degree.”


Mitacs would like to thank the Government of Canada, along with the Government of Alberta, the Government of British Columbia, Research Manitoba, and the Government of Quebec for their support of the Globalink Research Internship program. In addition, Mitacs is pleased to work with international partners to support Globalink, including Universities Australia; the China Scholarship Council; Campus France; India’s Ministry of Human Resource Development; Mexico’s Secretariat of Public Education, Monterrey Institute of Technology and Higher Education, and the National Autonomous University of Mexico; Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Education; and Tunisia’s Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research and Mission Universitaire de Tunisie en Amerique du Nord.