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Engineered Moth to Control Soybean Pest

Soybean looper caterpillar

Soybean looper caterpillar (Russ Ottens, University of Georgia, Wikimedia Commons)

16 Apr. 2019. A company providing genetically engineered insects to control threats to health and agriculture is designing a modified moth that now destroys soybeans and other crops. Oxitec Ltd. in Oxford, U.K., is creating an engineered variety of soybean looper, a pest ravaging various crops in the southern United States and elsewhere in the Americas, for an undisclosed client.

The soybean looper is a moth, which as a larva or caterpillar, consumes large quantities of foliage, particularly soybeans, but also cotton, sweet potatoes, peanuts, lettuce, herbs, tomato, and tobacco. In addition, female soybean loopers lay as many as 700 eggs in their lifetimes, allowing just a few of the species to grow very quickly in numbers. Soybean loopers have developed a resistance to many older pesticides, making them a problem to control. Moreover, they reside under the leaf canopy, or on the underside of leaves, which makes the insects difficult to target visually, even with newer pesticides.

Oxitec, a subsidiary of the synthetic biology company Intrexon, develops insect varieties genetically engineered to limit their reproduction and quickly reduce their numbers. The company’s technology genetically engineers the insect males that mate with females of the species to produce offspring with a gene causing them to die before they reach adulthood. Thus the engineered offspring are prevented from mating, which collapses their communities. Oxitec-engineered species also have a gene with a fluorescent marker, making them visible with a special light and trackable by authorities, if needed.

“Growers are facing compounding challenges including rising pest populations, growing resistance in pests, and a demand for more efficiencies in production,” says Kelly Matzen, who heads Oxitec’s research and development, in a company statement. “We anticipate that our self-limiting soybean looper will provide growers with a new, effective management option that will help to protect their yields by reducing losses ensuring traditional and new crop protection methods remain effective.”

As reported by Science & Enterprise in September 2017, Oxitec developed a genetically-altered variety of diamondback moth, another destructive agricultural pest with caterpillars that eat brassica or crucifer vegetable crops including popular items such as broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, collard greens, and kale. At the time, Oxitec began field tests of its self-limiting varieties, partnering with an entomology lab at Cornell University. Oxitec says data from the field trials are now being analyzed.

The company also develops genetically-engineered insect varieties to meet public health threats. In June 2018, Science & Enterprise reported on a new Oxitec project with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to create a variety of mosquito to help stop the spread of malaria. The foundation invests heavily in discovery of new drugs that prevent and treat malaria, but also supports other vector-control strategies, such as controlling mosquito populations.

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