Life at 8X: MPMI Cover

The January 2013 issue of Molecular Plant-Microbe Interactions (volume 26, number 1) is now online. Why do I mention this? You may recall the cover photos of the soybean aphid, Aphis glycines, from my post —one of a series of posts I’ve done featuring insects photographed at 8X life-size.

MPMI is a publication of The American Phytopathological Society, and I have Dr. Gustavo MacIntosh at Iowa State University to thank for the appearance of these photos on the cover of this Special Focus Issue. Dr. MacIntosh is Associate Professor of Biochemistry, Biophysics and Molecular Biology and studies hormone-based defense mechanisms in soybeans. In a paper appearing in this special issue, Dr. MacIntosh and co-author Matthew Studham published the results of a study that suggests soybean aphids are able to “short-circuit” soybean defense mechanisms, making it easier for other pests (e.g., soybean cyst nematode) to colonize infested plants as well. Their study revealed large differences in transcription profiles of soybean varieties with and without an endogenous resistance gene (Rag1) in response to aphid infestation and suggested that the aphids are able to circumvent the defense response in susceptible plants by triggering activation of abscissic acid (normally associated with abiotic stress responses) as a “decoy” strategy (Studham & MacIntosh 2013). Plants infested with aphids have been shown to also become more susceptible to soybean cyst nematode—even varieties with genetic resistance to nematodes (McCarville et al. 2012). Dr. MacIntosh saw my photos when I posted them here and asked permission to submit them as candidates for the cover of the MPMI issue in which his paper was to appear.

Dr. Macintosh hopes that his research will enable the development of soybean varieties that will be more resistant to aphids and other pests.


McCarville, M. T., M. O’Neal, G. L. Tylka, C. Kanobe & G. C. MacIntosh. 2012. A nematode, fungus, and aphid interact via a shared host plant: implications for soybean management. Entomologia Experimentalis et Applicata 143(1):55–66 [DOI: 10.1111/j.1570-7458.2012.01227.x].

Studham, M. E. & G. C. MacIntosh. 2013. Multiple Phytohormone Signals Control the Transcriptional Response to Soybean Aphid Infestation in Susceptible and Resistant Soybean Plants. Molecular Plant-Microbe Interactions 26(1):116–129 [DOI: 10.1094/MPMI-05-12-0124-FI].

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2012

Life at 8X—soybean aphid

Although my first attempt at adding extension tubes to my Canon MP-E 65mm macro lens, effectively converting it from a 1–5X to a 1.7–8.0X lens, was nearly a year ago, it has only been recently that I’ve actually started experimenting with this combination to obtain high-mag photographs of very small insects in the field. The first example that I showed of such a photograph was a tiny seed weevil (Althaeus sp.) on its hibiscus host plant. I’ve since photographed a number of other insect subjects at high-mag using this setup and am getting a better feel for the capabilities—and limitations—inherent in using it. First, here is what the setup actually looks like:

Canon 50D body, MP-E 65mm macro lens on 68mm extension, MT-24EX twin flash w/ DIY diffuser.

Not the normal photo quality for this site (just a quick field setup photographed with my I-Phone), but it shows just how long the lens component becomes when fully extended to achieve 8X magnification. The camera is quite front-heavy, making the camera difficult to use hand-held, and the very shallow DOF (depth of field) due to the extreme level of magnification makes precise focusing difficult and magnifies the effect of any motion between the camera and subject. Obviously, one solution for these problems is to mount the camera on a tripod and place the subject on a stable surface; however, for reasons I’ve mentioned elsewhere, it is unlikely that I will ever take to bringing a tripod into the field, and the whole point of this exercise is to develop the capability for getting usable hand-held field photographs no matter what level of magnification they may require. As an alternative, I use a number of other techniques, discussed in my prior post on the subject, to stabilize the camera without using a tripod.

One of the recent subjects I photographed with this setup is the soybean aphid, Aphis glycines (order Hemiptera, family Aphididae). This distinctive Asian species has recently established in the U.S. as invasive pest of soybeans; adult females measure only 1–2 mm in length (and the nymphs are even smaller) and can quickly develop very high densities on the leaves and upper stems of soybean plants. The following photograph was taken at the camera setup’s minimum magnification of 1.7X and provides a typical view of adult aphids and their progeny:

Aphis glycines (soybean aphid) | Warren Co., Illinois

While the above photograph does a very good job of showing the colonial appearance of infestations by these aphids on soybean foliage, what about the aphids themselves? It would be nice to get a better look at individual aphids. The following photographs were all taken with the lens fully extended to achieve 8X magnification (and completely hand-held):

Adult female aphid—note the eye spots of the unborn nymphs visible within the body.

Another adult female navigates the hairs on the surface of the soybean leaf (I never knew soybean leaves were so hairy!).

A mother surrounded by her progeny. As above, eye spots of unborn nymphs can be seen inside her body.

These photographs are not without their problems—they are a bit soft, probably due to motion blur that results from the camera being hand-held and the extremely thin DOF that makes it difficult to get all of the desired components of the photos equally in focus. Lighting also is a challenge, as the very small subject-to-lens distance forces light from the flash to come from directly above or even behind the subject while minimizing front lighting (especially evident in the last photo with its straight down view). Nevertheless, these are decent, usable photographs that provide an uncommon view of these exceedingly tiny insects—without the encumbrance of carrying a tripod in the field, the time investment of studio photography and/or focus-stacking, or the expense of a microscope-mounted camera system (for those of us without access to such systems).

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2012