US field trials commence for GM self-limiting veggie pest

US field trials commence for GM self-limiting veggie pest

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Trials with the Oxitec diamondback moth (DBM), similar to the GM Medfly, will be led by a professor of entomology from Cornell University. 

The sterile insect technique (SIT) has proven a helpful but expensive method for controlling pests around the world, but English company Oxitec has taken the idea one step further with the help of genetic modification.

Oxitec, which grew out of Oxford University research and is now a subsidiary of Intrexon Corporation (NYSE: XON), has already used the technology in the fight against Mediterranean fruit fly and malaria-carrying mosquitos.

On the other hand the company made the news for the wrong reasons last year.

The group was accused of “creating” the Zika virus (in fact first identified in Uganda in 1947) through its genetically modified mosquitoes, which Oxitec has flatly denied and used evidence to show it has actually reduced mosquito populations by 81% in a Brazilian neighbourhood where trials have taken place, leading to dramatic falls in dengue fever cases.

The next target in its sights is the diamondback moth (DBM), which it describes as the “world’s most damaging agricultural pest of brassica crops”, which includes cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, kale and other vegetables.

Oxitec highlights this highly invasive pest, which is a non-native species in the United States, costs farmers US$4 billion a year worldwide in crop losses and control management.

The company highlighted that not only was DBM reported as resistant to DDT in 1953, it has developed resistance to dozens of widely-used insecticides including spinosad, indoxacarb, chlorinated hydrocarbons, carbamates, organophosphates and pyrethroids, among others.

DBM is also one of the first agricultural pests to have evolved resistance in the field to Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) proteins.

It is with this in mind that Oxitec seeks to slash populations of the moth without using any pesticides, introducing self-limiting moths into existing populations.

This idea was given the green light by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), which announced a Finding Of No Significant Impact (FONSI) for the Oxitec DMB, allowing field trials to get started.

“Following the USDA’s extensive review, we are pleased to be advancing a novel breakthrough technology that will provide a powerful and sustainable solution to control the increasingly insecticide resistant diamondback moth and the damage it causes to a variety of important crops,” said Oxitec senior vice president and Intrexon food sector head Sekhar Boddupalli.

Tony Shelton, Ph.D., Professor of Entomology at Cornell University and a world-renowned expert on sustainable agriculture and DBM, will lead the USDA-approved field evaluation.

The field trial will be conducted at Cornell University’s New York State Agricultural Experiment Station.  

“Innovation in crop protection is necessary for more sustainable pest control methods and to reduce potential risks to human health and the environment,” Dr Shelton said.

“Self-limiting diamondback moths 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.”

Shelton said previous greenhouse and field cage studies of this technology worked extremely well, and the USDA-approved evaluation would help determine how well it works in the field.

As highlighted in a BioMed Central Biology publication, Oxitec’s platform has been successful in rapidly suppressing and eliminating the diamondback moth population and holds substantial promise as an effective, versatile control option against this agricultural pest.

The engineered moth (OX4319L) represents one of several self-limiting insect technologies that is being developed by Oxitec and Intrexon Crop Protection to manage hard-to-control or resistant crop pests.

“The purpose of the Oxitec diamondback moth is to provide farmers with an environmentally friendly tool in the fight against this invasive pest, especially in light of a significant decline in performance of alternative methods,” said Neil Morrison, Ph.D., Oxitec senior scientist and project lead.

“Moving to field trials is a critical step to get innovative solutions that are safe and effective to farmers in need.”

Intrexon is also the owner of Okanagan Specialty Fruits (OSF), which uses non-browning genetic technology in fruit and is most known for its soon-to-be-commercial Arctic Apples.

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