Modified male fruit flies ensure populations die out within crop, say researchers

Researchers in the UK and Greece have developed a new technique to control an insect pest by spreading a gene which prevents viable female offspring.

Ceratitis capitata - image:US Dept of Agriculture
Ceratitis capitata - image:US Dept of Agriculture

The technique was applied to a closed population of the Mediterranean fruit fly (Ceratitis capitata), a widespread crop pest, by researchers from British and Greek institutions and from UK bioscience firm Oxitec.

The sterile insect technique (SIT) is already an established method of pest control, but irradiating the flies leaves them weaker compared to non-treated insects in the field.

Instead, male flies were genetically modified to pass on a self-limiting trait to female offspring - a technique termed RIDL (release of insects carrying a dominant lethal).

Weekly releases of one such modified strain of males into fruit fly populations within a glasshouse containing lemon trees at the University of Crete "caused a successive decline in numbers, leading to eradication", the researchers concluded.

Lead researcher Dr Philip Leftwich of the Univeristy of East Anglia said: "This method presents a cheap and effective alternative to irradiation. We believe this is a promising new tool to deal with insects which is both environmentally friendly and effective."

Oxitec chief scientific officer Dr Simon Warner added: "Once appropriate regulatory approvals are received, the technology will offer growers a safe and effective route to protect their crops."

The open-access research is published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.


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