Tony Shelton, professor of entomology at Cornell University, and Neil Morrison, scientist at Oxitec Ltd, will share the results of their groundbreaking Diamondback Moth (DBM) Project research in a talk titled, “Safe Sex for Insects: New Technologies for Pest Control,” on Wednesday, Sept. 23, at 7 p.m. in Albright Auditorium. The DBM project is a scientific evaluation of a way to manage local pest populations of DBM moths by using genetically engineered DBM.
“Effective control of insect pests is critical in agriculture and many farmers are looking for ways to reduce their use of pesticides,” says Professor of Biology Beth Newell, who helped coordinate the event sponsored by the Biology Department. “Pesticides – whether synthetic or organic, sprayed on or produced within the plant – are toxins. If this technology works, it could reduce the use of pesticides on crops like cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, and kale.”
After successful completion of laboratory and greenhouse studies in the UK and at Cornell University, Shelton is furthering the evaluation of the genetically engineered moths by conducting field cage trials at Cornell’s Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva this year.
The DBM is the world’s worst insect pest of brassica crops, like cabbages, canola, broccoli, cauliflower and kale. Female DBMs can lay up to 150 eggs in their lifetime, creating entire generations of the moth that continue to wipe out crops across the country and around the world.
To mitigate the damage, the British biotech company, Oxitec, developed an “eco-friendly” pest control method by genetically engineering a strain of DBM with a “self-limiting gene” that prevents female offspring from developing. Unlike insecticides, which can harm beneficial insects and other non-target organisms, using Oxitec DBM would be non-toxic and only control this one invasive species.
“The goal of this technology is to use genetically engineered diamondback moths to suppress moth populations in fields where these crops are grown,” explains Newell. “We live in a region of some of the best farmland in the country; agriculture is the mainstay of the economy in the Finger Lakes region. Given this, we should all be interested in learning about factors that influence the environmental and economic sustainability of agricultural ecosystems.”
This summer, Shelton started a trial in which cabbages, pest moths and GE moths were introduced into field cages. The trial is assessing four objectives: the mating competitiveness in male genetically engineered moths, the longevity of male genetically engineered moths, the reproductive rate of pest moths, and the suppressive effect of male genetically engineered moths on the pest DBM.
Shelton and Morrison will discuss the results of the research program, the questions it has raised and the implications this has for the future of pest control. Some critics are fundamentally opposed to outdoor trials, but Shelton points to the need for approved and regulated scientific studies that pose no harm to people or the environment in order to properly evaluate GE insects as a pest control method. Shelton says that farmers need environmentally friendly tools, and these need to be evaluated before they can be applied to solve some of the greatest global agricultural challenges.
“Some people are categorically opposed to genetic engineering of living organisms, and others disagree about whether the benefits outweigh the costs,” Newell explains. “I hope everyone will come to this talk with an open mind. We’ll have an opportunity to learn about the science behind this technology as well as discuss its pros and cons. Crop losses to insect pests are costly to farmers everywhere, and we want to know if this technology could help and prevent some of those losses.”
For more information on the Diamondback Moth Project, visit: http://shelton.entomology.cornell.edu/2015/06/17/cornell-dbm-project-2015/