Researchers to release lab-created moths with 'self-destruct' gene onto US farmland

In the first initiative of its kind, insects with genetically-engineered "self-destruct" switches will be released in American farms in what is being claimed as an insecticide-free solution to the problem of agricultural pests. The effort, aimed at curbing the population of invasive diamondback moths, will be conducted at Cornell University's Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva, 160 miles west of Albany, reports Phys.org.

"It costs $4-5 billion a year globally to manage this pest," said Anthony Shelton, a Cornell University researcher who's been studying the species for 40 years. "If you can manage it without using insecticides that can affect pollinators and other non-target organisms, that's a real advantage."

The lab-created moths have been engineered with a gene that causes females to die before they can reach reproductive maturity. Under the plan, males with this gene will be released into the natural population to allow them to breed with wild females, thus altering the native gene pool. This is expected to lead to a population collapse once the new gene took hold.

Diamondback moths are known to be among the most resilient of invasive pests. The pests have evolved to shrug off every major pesticide used. According to experts, this was seen as a last-resort attempt to control the foreign bugs.

The laboratory-bred moths have been created by the biotech firm Oxitec, which had also similarly deployed modified mosquitoes in Brazil, Panama and the Caribbean in the fight against dengue fever and other diseases.

"The key is to reduce the number of reproductive females in the next generation," Phys.org reported quoting Oxitec scientist Neil Morrison.

But organic farming organisations and group opposed to the use of genetically modified organisms have criticised the efforts.

In comments to the USDA, GeneWatch UK said more information was needed to understand how the protein made by the moth's synthetic gene could affect wildlife that eats the insects.