Knowledge for a sustainable world

BA, MSc, PhD

After earning a first degree in zoology at Oxford University, Professor John Colvin pursued his interest in applied entomology by completing an MSc with distinction in pest and disease management at London University, Imperial College at Silwood Park. He then spent three years studying for a PhD on cotton-bollworm, Helicoverpa armigera, moth migration, at the University College of North Wales. In the course of his PhD, John developed an interest in mathematical modelling and computer programming and took part of a degree in these subjects. It was also during this period that John began to work at the Tropical Development and Research Institute, one of the predecessor units of the Natural Resources Institute (NRI) at the University of Greenwich.

After a short post-doctoral fellowship at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, London, working on mosquito and tsetse fly behaviour, Professor Colvin joined the Overseas Development Natural Resources Institute, the immediate predecessor of NRI. Since then, he has worked on many different economically important insect pests and plant viruses and has travelled to over 30 countries to carry out research and field work.

Over the previous 21 years, Professor Colvin has consistently won substantial research projects competitively, bringing together a wide range of scientific experts and managing them effectively in multidisciplinary teams. He is recognised internationally as a leading researcher in a remarkable range of subjects and has authored and co-authored more than 130 scientific publications, book chapters, knowledge-transfer and media articles. His research is frequently novel and he applied recently for a patent, jointly with Susan Seal and David Bailey, on information arising from whitefly transcriptomics research.

Professor Colvin believes strongly in the need to train and mentor the next generation of scientists and has supervised successfully 15 and 13 MSc and PhD students respectively. He has had a wide range of responsibilities at the NRI. He assists in the management of the Locust & Grasshopper Problem Area, is a member of the NRI Research Committee, head of the Insect and Disease Management Group and is head of the Agricultural Biosecurity Research Group. He has had responsibilities within the university as a member of the Professor and Reader Appointments Committee. In the wider world of academia, he acts as an external PhD examiner for both UK and overseas universities and is asked frequently to review the quality of candidates for the promotion panels of other universities and institutes. He is an active member of International Whitefly Network, participating actively in organising two recent international whitefly meetings in China. Professor Colvin also represents NRI on the National Horticultural Forum R&D providers group and is a Fellow of the Royal Entomological Society.

Professor Colvin has spent much of his research career working on insects, plants and viruses. In his early career, he was particularly struck by the ingenuity inherent in the pest management technologies created to address the agricultural problems that arise when human interests conflict with those of insect species and the plant viruses they transmit. Due to the enormity of the human suffering caused by some of these problems, especially in the developing world, he has been particularly interested in agricultural research that generates practical technologies, or knowledge-based solutions, that can be adopted easily by resource-poor farmers.

Professor Colvin has a wide variety of research interests, but the two most important are the whitefly species complex, Bemisia tabaci, and the main group of plant-viruses that they transmit called begomoviruses. Whitefly are responsible for spreading a larger number of plant-virus pandemics and research is helping find novel methods for controlling then and preventing future pandemics.

Enabling research tools for cassava virologists and breeders

This project aims to develop specific research tools for African cassava virologists and breeders, which will assist their research and work to improve cassava productivity and sustainability in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). The research tools to be developed are (i) more discriminatory whitefly diagnostics, and (ii) infectious clones (ICs) of cassava brown streak viruses (CBSV, UCBSV) and standard operating procedures (SOPs) for their use in SSA. This project links directly with the Disease diagnostics for sustainable cassava productivity in Africa project at the Mikocheni Agricultural Research Institute (MARI) Tanzania, which aims to minimise both the occurrence as well as impact of cassava virus diseases and their associated insect (whitefly) vectors.

Brassicas: Integrated management of whitefly, Aleyrodes proletella

The project aim was to carry out proof-of-concept experimental research for improved and sustainable whitefly control on Brassica crops. The research team mass reared the whitefly, Aleyrodes proletella and one of its parasitoids, Encarsia tricolor in order to conduct a proof-of-concept field trial on curly kale, to assess the integration of beneficial-insect augmentation, meshes and a systemic insecticide, to achieve improved whitefly control. The research showed for the first time that augmenting parasitoids in the field provided equivalent whitefly control to some of the insecticide treatments.

Management, monitoring and biology of chard and spinach leaf-miners

Leaf-miners cause damage to chard and spinach crops in the UK by creating unsightly mines that reduce crop quality and value. A much worse scenario occurs, however, when the leaf or stem mines go unnoticed and the larvae are able to feed for about two weeks. Prior to pupation, they become 6mm long white maggots whose presence in speciality salad crops is completely unacceptable to growers, retailers and consumers. This project's aims were to (i) develop improved insecticide-based management method(s) for this serious problem; (ii) generate new information on the biology of the key pest species; and (iii) develop ways of monitoring their populations to improve the timing of insecticide applications. The project results and recommendations were disseminated through a grower magazine article and conference presentation.

Management and biology of flea beetle species and other key pests of leafy Brassica crops

UK Brassica growers identified the brassica flea beetle complex as a priority area for research and the increasing problem was thought to be related to reduced insecticide use on oil seed rape crops, which allows high populations to build up, followed subsequently by emigration from them. Phyllotreta undulate, P. atra and P. diademata are the main species in the pest complex. Adult feeding causes 'shot holes' in the crop, which reduces significantly its quality and thus marketability. A range of control technologies were tested including mesh nets, systemic insecticides and coded developmental products. A combination of mesh nets and insecticide sprays provided excellent control and the project results and recommendations were disseminated through a grower magazine article and conference presentation.

Head of the Agricultural Bio-Security Research Group Responsible for the DEFRA-licenced insectary and non-quarantine glasshouses.
  • Fellow, Royal Entomological Society
  • Member, National Horticultural Forum: R&D providers group
  • Active member of the International Whitefly Studies Network (previously called the European Whitefly Studies Network)
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