Researchers test self-destructing moth pest in cabbage patch

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — Researchers in a New York cabbage patch are planning the first release on American soil of insects genetically engineered to die before they can reproduce.

It’s a pesticide-free attempt to control invasive diamondback moths, a voracious consumer of cabbage, broccoli and other cruciferous crops that’s notorious for its ability to shrug off every new poison in the agricultural arsenal.

“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.”

Shelton is doing field tests of gene-altered moths at Cornell’s Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva, 160 miles west of Albany. Those experiments began in 2015, but until now were restricted to net-covered plots to keep the moths from straying. Now, he’s awaiting a permit from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to release the moths freely in a 10-acre cabbage patch at the research center. He hopes to do that this summer.

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The laboratory-bred moths are the creation of biotech firm Oxitec, which deployed similarly modified mosquitoes in Brazil, Panama and the Caribbean in the fight against dengue fever and other diseases. The company hopes to conduct the first U.S. release of the gene-altered mosquitoes in Florida later this year.

The moths have a synthetic “self-limiting” gene that makes their female larvae die before they mature. Lab-bred males are released to breed with wild females, reducing the population over time by suppressing reproduction.

“The key is to reduce the number of reproductive females in the next generation,” Oxitec scientist Neil Morrison said.

The work has drawn criticism from organic farming organizations and groups opposed to…

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