Scientists Are Developing 'Sexy Plants' To Protect Crops From Insects

The plan is to use the engineered plants to disrupt the mating behavior of pests. Epitavi/Shutterstock

Josh Davis 07 Jun 2018, 17:31

The spread of agricultural intensification has led to a massive increase in the use of pesticides. But this has had hugely damaging effects on the environment, and is thought to be contributing to an insect apocalypse sweeping across the western world. Now scientists may have developed a solution: sexy plants.

The project aims to engineer plants to produce the sex pheromones of insects. The idea is that these plants – which could then be planted among crops – will release the molecules into the air, confusing and thus disrupting the pests’ attempts to mate. It is hoped that this would mean that farmers would then be able to cut down on their use of harmful chemical pesticides.

The concept behind such a move is not exactly new, as already some farmers spray their fields with the sex pheromones of insects as a way to protect them. The issue with this is that these chemicals have to be manufactured in a factory, which is often pretty costly meaning not many can do it.

But by engineering plants to make these pheromones, researchers at the Earlham Institute in the UK along with a consortium of other institutions hope that this cost can be cut dramatically. Initially, the researchers plan on harvesting the plants and then extracting the pheromones to use in traps hung around fields, but one day it might be possible to plant these engineered plants around and in the crop fields, attracting the female pests and drawing them away from the crops.

So far, researchers have been able to create plants that make the pheromones of moths, but there is a certain degree of tweaking that needs to be done. Another likely target is to develop citrus plants that can produce the mealybug sex pheromones, while other crops and their pests are also under consideration.

Currently, the majority of farming is heavily reliant on pesticides, which harm beneficial insects just as much as they do the pests they are being used to control. This is thought to be what is driving an insect "apocalypse” that's running riot across Europe, and likely many other places.

There is now so much mounting evidence that one of the most widely used and prevalent classes of pesticides – known as neonicotinoids – is causing devastating declines in bee numbers that the European Union has even banned their use on outdoor farms.

The hope is that these genetically modified plants will have nowhere near the same impact, as the pheromones produced will be specific to the pests that they are targeting. What's more, the spread of the sex smells will be low as the plants don’t produce them in anywhere near the same volume as the chemical pesticides that are sprayed.

[H/T: The Guardian]

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