European corn borer reveals its Achilles heel

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Scientists at Rothamsted Research have identified the crucial controls of population cycles of the European corn borer pest, which could help prevent damage to maize crops and thereby save billions of dollars.

In a study published in the prestigious journal Ecology Letters, James Bell, Ph.D., and Alice Milne, Ph.D., of Rothamsted Research, working in collaboration with America colleagues, led by Bill Hutchison, Ph.D., at the University of Minnesota, mathematically analysed nearly 50 years' data to detect cycles of the corn borer larvae.

Dr. Milne said "Identifying population cycles in this pest will help us understand what to expect from this pest which has colonised the UK in 2010".

The European corn borer moth (Ostrinia nubilalis) is a pest whose larvae tunnel into maize crops and cause serious damage. Outbreaks in the United States have cost the American economy 1 billion dollars per annum. In North America across the U.S. Corn Belt and much of southern Canada, the moth is naturally controlled by a disease that infects the larvae. The disease produces wave-like cycles in the population that last between five and seven years.

In the mid-1990s, GM maize was introduced to control the pest further. An analysis of nearly 50 years data on the larval population of the European corn borer has shown that GM crops substantially reduced numbers when applied over a landscape and in large enough proportions. All other cycle collapses (mammals mostly) have been attributed to climate change as far as we know and we believe this is the first demonstration that host plant modification is a successful strategy to controlling pests, which need not be via GM and instead could be through breeding by making the plant less palatable to the pest.

The team is now developing a more detailed model that Dr Bell stated "will help farmers trying to produce maize for future UK demands. GM maize is not permitted in the UK, but there are other lessons we can learn from this study, particularly how manipulating the spatial distribution of the crop in the landscape can influence the population of the moth".

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