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Genetics Help Control Dangerous Insects

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Asian giant hornet

Asian giant hornet (Matthew Buffington, ARS)

14 Jan. 2022. Advances in genetics are providing communities, businesses, and homeowners with new tools for controlling harmful insects. These solutions control the spread of insect populations by changing the insects’ genes, without the need for chemicals that can affect other species or affect human or animal health.

One of the more advanced insect-control projects using genetics is in the Florida Keys, a string of islands south of mainland Florida in the U.S. A company called Oxitec Ltd., spun-off from labs at University of Oxford in the U.K., uses genetic engineering to control the Aedes aegypti mosquito. This species is responsible for spreading a number of infectious diseases, most notably Zika, dengue, yellow fever, and chikungunya. Zika and dengue are two diseases recently affecting the Florida Keys.

Oxitec genetically alters Aedes aegypti mosquitoes so the males cannot bite. The non-biting male mosquitoes mate with biting females but produce offspring that do not bite. As a result, non-biting female mosquitoes cannot survive, which reduces the overall mosquito population. Regulatory agencies in the U.S. approved Oxitec’s project in 2016 and 2020, with release of the altered male mosquitoes completed in November 2021. Oxitec is now assessing mosquito populations in target areas with monitoring to continue until Feb. 2022.

A second insect-control project using genetics involves the Asian giant hornet, or Vespa mandarinia. Dubbed the “murder hornet,” the Asian giant hornet, and hornets in general, are actually more of a threat to honey bees than humans. Honey bees are vital to agriculture worldwide, since honey bees pollinate crops. In the U.S., honey bees are estimated to pollinate one-third of all fruits and vegetables grown.

As a result, the Agricultural Research Service, or ARS, an agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture asked the company Pacific Biosciences in Menlo Park, California, to sequence the genome of the Asian giant hornet to better understand its molecular make-up and discover vulnerabilities for its eventual control. In Aug. 2020, the company said it completed the genomic sequencing in two months. ARS said it’s using the findings to understand the hornet’s dynamics and devise measures for control.

In the meantime, farmers and homeowners can take steps today with services to control hornets on their properties, using environmentally safe measures.

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