December 4, 2020

What’s Killing Trees and Crops in Northwestern New Jersey?

Centenary University professor and students embark on research that could someday lead to natural way to control the spotted lantern fly, an invasive species posing a big risk to vegetation

image of Amanda Tokash-Peters, PhD

Assistant Professor Amanda Tokash-Peters, Ph.D.

HACKETTSTOWN, NJ, Dec. 4, 2020—New research launched at Centenary University could someday halt the spread of the spotted lantern fly, an invasive species that is destroying trees and crops in northwestern New Jersey. Assistant Professor of Biology Amanda Tokash-Peters, Ph.D., and two Centenary students are examining the insect’s microbiome— all of the microorganisms within an environment—to isolate and sequence their DNA, and then identify microbes that are critical to the insect’s lifecycle.

For her recent doctoral program, Dr. Tokash-Peters examined the mosquito microbiome, which she believes shares commonalities with the spotted lantern fly microbiome. “This is brand new, emerging research,” said Dr. Tokash-Peters. “As far as I’ve been able to see in my background research, very little has been published on the microbiome of the spotted lantern fly yet. They feed on a lot of agricultural crops, but normally they look for an invasive tree called the Tree of Heaven, which we have in northwestern New Jersey. Their lifecycle very closely depends on this tree.”

The spotted lantern fly is believed to have arrived in the United States on shipping containers, possibly via ports in Philadelphia, according to Dr. Tokash-Peters. The insect is easy to identify, with beige spotted wings that have cherry red undersides. Laying its eggs in the fall and feeding on plants from May through October, they leave a substance on trees and crops called honeydew, making vegetation susceptible to a fungus infection.

To advance her research, Dr. Tokash-Peters has enlisted the help of Centenary students Victoria Viersma ’21 and Alissa Mor ’22. The students are playing an integral role, collecting and analyzing insect samples, including from nearby Donaldson’s Farms in Hackettstown, which has experienced spotted lantern fly damage. Through a partnership with the University of Massachusetts Boston, Dr. Tokash-Peters has access to leading analytical technology.

A natural solution may be years off, but Dr. Tokash-Peters and her students hope that their research will set the groundwork to replace the pesticides currently used to control the spread. She said, “I’d like to see this research, years from now, be the basis of developing probiotics to deal with this infection. “We could promote good bacteria to stop the infection with these fungi and defend plants.”


Founded in 1867 by the Newark Conference of the United Methodist Church, Centenary University’s academic program integrates a solid liberal arts foundation with a strong career orientation. This mix provides an educational experience that prepares students to succeed in the increasingly global and interdependent world. The University’s main campus is located in Hackettstown, N.J., with its equestrian facility in Washington Township. The Centenary University School of Professional Studies offers degree programs in Parsippany, as well as online and at corporate sites throughout New Jersey.

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