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Field Tests of Genetically Modified Moths to Begin

Diamondback moth

Diamondback moth (Olaf Leillinger, Wikimedia Commons)

5 September 2017. Outdoor tests of a genetically engineered diamondback moth, a difficult agricultural pest, altered to stop reproducing and collapse the species, are about to get underway. Tests of the modified moth, produced by Oxitec Ltd, a biotechnology company developing engineered insects for health and agriculture, will be conducted by the lab of entomologist Anthony Shelton at Cornell University.

The diamondback moth — Plutella 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 diamondback moth in recent years became resistant to many synthetic and organic pesticides, leaving growers with few control options. The moth causes crop damage estimated by Shelton and colleagues at $4 to $5 billion a year worldwide.

Oxitec, based in Oxford, U.K., produces genetically altered insects that enable growers and public health authorities to control pests causing disease in crops and humans without toxins or chemical pesticides. For diamondback moths, genes in males of the species are altered to create females that die before they reach adulthood. Males mate with female moths, then pass along the self-limiting gene to the next generation of females, reducing the number of egg-laying females, and shrinking the moth population. Diamondback males mate only with their own species, leaving other insect species unaffected.

As reported in Science & Enterprise in July 2015, greenhouse tests of the altered diamondback moth show the engineered male moths quickly reduced the total moth population, and eliminated the species in about 8 weeks. In July of this year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture concluded its environmental assessment of the modified moths, finding they posed no significant impact, and issued a permit allowing the field tests to proceed.

The field tests will be conducted by Shelton’s team at the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station affiliated with Cornell. The engineered moths express red fluorescence as a marker, enabling the study team to assess the feasibility and efficacy of these moths in reducing their populations.

“Self-limiting diamondback moths,” says Shelton in an Oxitec statement, “offer a new mode of action in the fight against this economically damaging pest. Importantly, this technology only targets this damaging pest species, and does not affect beneficial insects such as pollinators and biological control agents.”

Oxitec is a spin-off company from Oxford University. In August 2015, the company was acquired by synthetic biology company Intrexon Corp. in Gaithersburg, Maryland, for $160 million cash and Intrexon stock.

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