Hollywood science fiction has long warned about alien invasions, but the real science may be more frightening. And unlike the giant monsters in classic sci-fi movies, it's the creatures you can't see that are the most dangerous.
Some of the scariest of these microscopic species are housed at an ultra-secure quarantine facility on the campus of the University of California Riverside.
Dr. Mark Hoddle, Ph.D is the director at the Center for Invasive Species.
"This is a bio-level three security facility," says Dr. Hoddle. "And behind this wall we are going to walk through a series of corridors. The air pressure is always moving to the center of the building so any insect that tries to escape from one of the laboratories will be sucked back inwards."
Wearing protective lab jackets, America Now joins Dr. Hoddle on a tour of the facility. As we get deeper into the quarantine facility and change into T-Vac suits, which will protect our hair and enclosing our arms and our pant legs. This is to mitigate any chance of hitchhikers from contaminating our clothes and them being moved out of the quarantine facility.
The most dangerous inmates of this insect version of a maximum security prison threaten to eradicate entire fields of American crops. Scientists are currently studying the Gold Spotted Oak Borer, which has already killed 80,000 oak trees, and the Red Palm Weevil, which if not stopped, could eliminate palm trees across the country.
Dr. Hoddle says many of these tiny invaders hitched a ride to the U.S. on unsuspecting travelers. Once on American soil, the creatures are safe from their natural predators and able to build up large populations.
One of the most dangerous of these invaders is the Asian Citrus Psyllid, a microscopic species from Southeast Asia. It carries a disease that could wipe out all citrus trees… imagine, no more oranges, grapefruits or lemons! The only chance of stopping it is to find the its natural predator in its native habitat.
"So my role in that is to go to Pakistan, probably the area of origin for this insect," says Dr. Hoddle. "I've been looking for a parasitic wasp that we can bring back to California to suppress the population of the Asian Citrus Psyllid."
Dr. Hoddle was successful in locating and capturing one male and one female parasitic wasp. They'll be quarantined for at least 18 months to make sure the cure isn't more harmful than the disease itself. Dr. Hoddle hopes they will soon be released to go after the Citrus Psyllid.
"We want them to spread quickly and chase down the invader, attack it and drive its populations down to lower levels," he explains.
Dr. Hoddle stresses that we should be extra cautious when returning from overseas. Items likely to carry a micro-invader include:
• BULK COMMODITIES, SUCH AS RICE
With continuing globalization, everyone plays a role in protecting habitats from these tiny, non-native invaders.
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