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Genetic Engineered Variety Controls Destructive Moth

Diamondback moth

Diamondback moth (Olaf Leillinger, Wikimedia Commons)

16 July 2015. A genetically engineered diamondback moth that prevents females of the species from maturing is found in greenhouse tests to quickly control populations of this destructive pest. Results of the tests, led by biotechnology company Oxitec Ltd., appear today in the journal BMC Biology.

The diamondback mothPlutella xylostella — is a destructive agriculture pest, particularly the caterpillars that eat brassica or crucifer vegetable crops including popular items such as broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, collard greens, and kale. The moth causes crop damage estimated by co-author Anthony Shelton of Cornell University at $4 to $5 billion a year worldwide.

Controlling the diamondback up to now relied on pesticides, but in recent years, the moth has shown to develop a resistance to synthetic, biological, and plant-expressed pesticides, as well as some types of crops genetically engineered to survive the moth. Another control technique uses radiation to produce sterile male insects that disrupt mating and thus reduce pest populations, but the sterile insect technique, as it is called, reportedly has uneven success, particularly over large regions. Radiation affects many genes in the moth, making them weaker and less able to compete against healthy males in the population.

Oxitec is a spin-off enterprise from Oxford University in the U.K. that develops genetically engineered insect varieties for controlling agricultural pests, including the diamondback moth, as well as disease-spreading mosquitoes. In the new study, researchers from Oxitec, with colleagues from the U.S. (including Shelton) and China, tested a genetically engineered variety of the male diamondback moth, designed to produce female offspring that die before they reach maturity, thus preventing eggs to be laid and causing the population to decline.

The team led by Oxitec research scientist Neil Morrison tested the company’s engineered diamondback moth in greenhouses growing broccoli at Cornell in New York State and the U.K. Genetically engineered, but otherwise healthy, moths were compared against non-engineered moths. The Oxitec moths were also identified with a fluorescent protein marker.

The results show moth populations in greenhouses with the genetically engineered males quickly diminished in size, and were eliminated in about 8 weeks, while similar greenhouses with non-engineered moths had little change in population. Similar tests with broccoli genetically engineered to resist diamondback moths, a type often grown commercially, show moth populations also diminished. Oxitec moths in the greenhouses with the genetically engineered broccoli also did not develop a resistance to those varieties.

The company plans further small-scale tests with cabbage in field cages during the summer of 2015, which are already approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The following video tells more about the Oxitec engineered diamondback moth.

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