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Innovative tools for rational control of the most difficult-to-manage pests (super pests) and the diseases they transmit

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Better ways of stopping pests damaging our crops

A new set of tools and strategies can help farmers deal with common pests more cheaply and with far less use of pesticides.

Food and Natural Resources icon Food and Natural Resources

Aphids, whiteflies, thrips and mites are the stuff of nightmares for Europe’s farmers. These arthropods can damage more than 200 major crops and can also transmit viruses. “These are the most common pests, so most pesticides have targeted them. This has resulted in pesticide resistance and made control extremely difficult,” explains John Vontas, professor of Pharmacology at the Agricultural University of Athens in Greece. SuperPests, an EU-funded project co-ordinated by Vontas, has spent the last four and a half years developing a range of new products, concepts and tools and has used data-driven mathematical models to integrate these with existing approaches. The result is a more effective and sustainable system for integrated pest management (IPM).

Lower cost, less pesticide

“By combining new with existing solutions, we are managing to achieve much more efficient control in field experiments. With this IPM, the cost is reduced by 50 % and the pesticide residue by 80 % compared to traditional chemical control. That is pretty substantial,” says Vontas. This could also help farmers meet one of the goals of the European Green Deal, which calls for reducing the use of pesticides by 50 % by 2030. The team identified many new markers for resistance in pests. They used these, plus previously established markers, to develop diagnostic tools which can be used to determine the most effective pesticide for each infestation.

Aids for testing insecticides

They developed biotechnology-based pipelines useful for screening and testing novel insecticides and biopesticides. These include a virtual insectary, a panel of over 30 transgenic fruit fly lines and a library of 21 SuperPest P450s. “These are enzymes you can use to test the metabolic stability of new compounds. We have developed simple biochemical assays which allow you to do the testing quickly and easily,” notes Vontas. Testing the biopesticides showed that some, used alone or especially as a mixture, have very good potential for acting as a more environmentally friendly way of controlling pests. Understanding pest effectors – the resistance mechanisms plants can develop against pests – and looking to strengthen these, was another area of study. “We discovered some molecular determinants of those phenotypes, which we hope to exploit to develop more resistance in tomato plants in the future,” says Vontas.

Encouraging the predators

The team also worked on boosting the fitness of the beneficial insects which act as biological control agents by feeding on the pests. Typically resistant plants will repel not only pests, but potentially also the beneficial insects. “We tried to enhance the resistance of tomato plants to super pests without affecting their attractiveness to beneficial predators,” adds Vontas. “We managed to created predator strains with substantially improved fitness on resistant plants.” The results are applicable to other vegetables too. Project partners are harnessing the insights gained from SuperPests in new initiatives including CypTox which aims to develop selective, low-risk insecticides which are effective against insects and mites. Meanwhile, MicroBioPest intends to develop microbial biopesticides which are safe for the environment but effective against agricultural pests and vectors of human diseases.

Keywords

SuperPests, pests, crops, aphids, whiteflies, thrips, mites, diagnostic tools, pesticides, insecticides, biopesticides, plant, resistance, biological control, IPM

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