To Ditch Pesticides, Scientists Are Hacking Insects’ Sex Signals

Proving that how these pheromones work and that they work has taken almost a decade. “We are currently looking at expanding the process and introducing them to the market,” says Löfstedt. This study also opens the door to using sex disruption to protect other commodity crops from pests and diseases. “The pheromones can be used in sugarcane and soybean production,” says Löfstedt.

The beauty of pheromones is that they don’t kill insects but instead just affect their behavior. Srinivasan Ramasamy, lead entomologist at the nonprofit World Vegetable Center, explains this makes them more environmentally friendly than pesticides, which often wipe out many species that are not the target. . Pesticides are commonly found in soil, air, water, and on non-target organisms in our ecosystems. They can harm plants and animals, from beneficial soil microorganisms and insects—such as bees, pollinators, spiders and ticks—to plants, fish, birds, and other animals. other wild.

Insects also distinguish whether pheromone signals are from their own species, meaning you can target the life cycle of specific pests while leaving other insects unaffected. “Specificity is a very clear feature of the pheromone system,” says Wang.

That’s not only good news for a lot of bugs out there, but also for farmers and consumers. Insect pheromones are not toxic to humans, which is a real boon for agricultural workers. Löfstedt explains: “It has been shown that common pesticides have a negative effect on the fertility of farm workers, for example. Some insecticides target body systems in insects that are physiologically similar to those in humans, such as neurotransmitters. “When you are exposed to pesticides, they can affect your physiology,” says Ramasamy.

And importantly, insects have not developed resistance to their own communication signals, says Löfstedt, while they are resistant to pesticides. Repeated use of a family of insecticides often results in insects adapting and no longer responding to the same chemicals, meaning that higher and higher doses are required to be effective—with serious consequences for the environment.

But even if this technique is replicated, there will be limits on how it can be used. Cooperation between neighboring farmers is also key, as mating disruptions work best if large areas are dealt with. Female caterpillars can mate in the field, then move and lay eggs. “Treatment of home gardens with pheromones is often not very successful,” says Löfstedt.

There are rules to exceed. The fact that it’s genetically modified (GMO) technology could prove a major hurdle and also increase costs, Ramasamy warned. “In most countries, producing GMOs may not be too expensive, but the regulatory filings they go through require a lot of investment,” he said. In fact, strict regulations on the use of GMOs in Europe could cause the continent to miss out on these products, Löfstedt said.

Finally, there are biological limits to how widely pheromones can be used—they are not an option for all pests. “Not all insects have sex pheromones,” explains Löfstedt, and some produce complex compounds that are not simple for biological engineering. In some cases, sex pheromones are made up of two or three compounds. “Then you need to have two or three GM plants produced and put into regulation,” says Ramasamy.

The reality is that for agriculture to be sustainable, it may be necessary to combine a variety of pest control techniques—such as fungi or virus-based pesticides and pest-resistant cultivars, used in conjunction with with the engineered pheromone. But right now, the competition for pest control is fierce: Pesticides are easy to obtain, easy to use, handle a wide range of insects, and are relatively inexpensive. “If we were to use five different ingredients in an integrated pest management program, the farmers would say, ‘No, sorry,’” says Ramasamy. The key, he suggests, will be to find a sustainable solution that keeps things simple.

However, Löfstedt is adamant that pheromones developed from plants could be an important part of future pest control. “It’s green chemistry, powered by solar energy,” he says—another plus. If we want to be sustainable and protect wildlife, crops and human health, we need to find pest control methods like these that can be replicated in practice. Reduce pesticide use—and make sure it happens. It is up to us to “use biological knowledge and various control methods in a biologically rational manner”.


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