UArizona helps eliminate devastating pest from US and Mexico

Dec 22, 2020, 5:05 AM | Updated: 3:56 pm
Collaboration between the University of Arizona, cotton farmers, and their partners in government a...
Collaboration between the University of Arizona, cotton farmers, and their partners in government and industry eradicated the pink bollworm, a devastating lepidopteran pest of cotton that invaded the United States a century ago. (Courtesy photo/ USDA Agricultural Research Service)
(Courtesy photo/ USDA Agricultural Research Service)

PHOENIX — An invasive pest that caused millions of damage to cotton farmers in the United States and Mexico for the past century has been eradicated, according to a press release by the University of Arizona on Monday.

The invasive pink bollworm, native to a region of Australia, New Zealand and neighboring islands, compromised the production of cotton lint when caterpillars bore into cotton bolls and ate the seeds after a female moth laid eggs on cotton plants.

The pest cost Arizona cotton growers $32 million in damages in 1990, according to the release, even though $16 million was spent on insecticides in an attempt to control it.

University of Arizona research scientists, cotton growers and biotech industry and government partners devised a program in 2006 aimed to eradicate the pink bollworm by using a combination of genetically engineered cotton, classic pest control tactics and the release of sterile pink bollworms.

“By analyzing computer simulations and 21 years of field data from Arizona, we discovered that genetically engineered cotton and the release of billions of sterile pink bollworm moths acted synergistically to suppress this pest,” Jeffrey Fabrick, a co-author of the study and a research entomologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service, said in the release.

Cotton growers in the United States saved $192 million from 2014 to 2019 thanks to the program, according to the study, while also preventing the application of over a million pounds of insecticides per year in Arizona.

“Although pink bollworm remains a daunting pest in over 100 countries, our strategic coalition rid the U.S. and Mexico of this invasive insect,” Bruce Tabashnik, lead study author and a Regents Professor in the University of Arizona Department of Entomology, said in the release.

The cotton was genetically engineered in 1996 to produce a protein that was harmless to humans and most beneficial insects but could kill the pink bollworm and other caterpillar pests, according to the release.

While the pest eventually evolved to resist the protein, the combination of releasing sterile moths and genetically enhanced cotton rid the two countries of the pink bollworm, with results of the study showing neither tactic would have worked alone, according to the release.

“In this era plagued by invasive organisms, as well as doubts about the power of science and controversy about genetic engineering, the study exemplifies the tremendous benefits of collaboration and synergy between biotechnology and classical tactics,” Tabashnik said.

“We hope the concepts illustrated here will inspire integrated approaches to combat other invasive life forms.”

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UArizona helps eliminate devastating pest from US and Mexico