Research & Innovation

Athula Attygalle Receives the Arnold Berliner Award for His Study of One Peculiar Animal

An explosive beetle stars in the chemistry and chemical biology professor’s award-winning paper

A beetle that literally creates a scalding-hot explosion is the subject of an award-winning paper written by Athula Attygalle and coauthors in 2021. The journal The Science of Nature honored Attygalle, a teaching professor in the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology at Stevens Institute of Technology, along with coauthors Sihang Xu, Wendy Moore, Reilly McManus, Aman Gill and Kipling Will with their 2021 Arnold Berliner Award, which is granted annually to authors for “excellent, original, and — especially — interdisciplinary research.”

In their paper “Biosynthetic origin of benzoquinones in the explosive discharge of the bombardier beetle Brachinus elongatulus,” Attygalle and coauthors described the molecules and pathways that lead to the production of two different benzoquinones, which, when mixed together, give the beetle its bang.

“We explain for the first time how these incredible beetles biosynthesize chemicals to create fuel for their explosions,” said Attygalle. It’s fascinating that the beetles can safely metabolize such toxic chemicals, he continued. In future studies, he hopes to follow the beetles’ chemical supply chain further upstream, to learn how the precursors are biosynthesized from naturally available substances.

The beetle’s defensive explosion is arguably “one of the most amazing defense mechanisms in animals,” according to the award announcement.

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