Mormon Crickets at BYU

Daniel Fenn with Mormon Crickets
Daniel Fenn examines his favorite research subject, the Mormon cricket. Before he could sequence its DNA, Fenn and his colleagues fi rst sorted through 400 crickets to fi nd the 55 best specimens.

A Brigham Young University molecular biology major has sequenced the mitochondrial genome of the "Mormon cricket," the scourge of Utah's early crops and a favorite food of the seagull. In fact, Daniel Fenn, a Salt Lake City native, is the lead author on "The complete mitochondrial genome sequence of the Mormon cricket (Anabrus simplex: Tettigoniidae: Orthoptera)," published in the journal Insect Molecular Biology. "I decided to study the Mormon cricket not only because of its interesting molecular DNA, but because they affect the economy," Fenn says.

According to Mark Branham,
Daniel Fenn
Fenn next plans on studying the cricket’s phylogenetics or family tree, a study that will give him an opportunity to study crickets, grasshoppers, and katydids and compare the evolutionary relationships among them.
assistant professor of entomology and nematology at the University of Florida, it is quite an accomplishment for an undergraduate to publish in a high profile journal. "This work is amazing not only because it was done by an undergrad, but because it is really at the forefront of providing a contribution to the field," Branham says.

The Mormon cricket, which is actually a katydid and about three inches long, lives mainly in Utah, Nevada, Colorado, and Idaho. Known for being quite vicious, it will eat anything in its path, hence Fenn's interest in the insect. "Certain pest control methods start with understanding the genes," Fenn explains. "I studied the dynamics of how groups interact, which could eventually lead to researchers knowing how to control infestations."

According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, there are only 69 other published insect genomes in the world. Before he could sequence this particular genome, Fenn and his colleagues had to sort through about 400 crickets from central and southern Utah to find 55 of the choicest specimens to study. "Where else should the Mormon cricket be studied than at BYU?" jokes Michael Whiting, BYU professor of biology and Fenn's faculty mentor. "But more than curiosity, we were interested because this is an important pest species."

Fenn has worked with Whiting for more than a year. After graduation, he plans to pursue a joint M.D./Ph.D. and conduct medical research. His research should give him an advantage in medical school because he has been exposed to new research methods and has learned a lot about physiology. "This project, as well as others I've been a part of at BYU, will help tremendously when applying to medical school," Fenn says. "A lot of people work in labs and just wash plates, but I have had the opportunity to do hands-on research with many different species."

Whiting says that Fenn is a remarkable student and has succeeded in characterizing a species we know very little about. And he is not done yet. During his cricket research, Fenn started compiling the cricket's phylogenetics or family tree, the basis for his next project. It is no surprise that Fenn is more interested in the Mormon cricket than maybe even a hungry gull.