New Way to Combat Corn Earworm

New Way to Combat Corn Earworm

UK student discovers new way to combat crop pest. UK student discovers new way to combat crop pest.

March 29, 2016

Story provided by University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, Food and Environment

A discovery at the University of Kentucky could slow a pest causing millions of dollars in damage to crops.  Jeff Franklin reports on the student who will soon compete in a worldwide competition due to her work combating corn earworm.

"It’s the number two crop-damaging pest in the world," said Alonna Wright, "and number one in North America, causing millions and millions of dollars in damage and not only in corn but tomatoes, and cotton, and sorghum. It is found on 123 hosts so far, it will eat anything it can get its hands on."

It is hard to believe that an insect pest so small can create so much damage, but that is the case with the corn earworm, Considered to be the most costly crop pest in North America. UK student Alonna Wright works with a genetically engineered form of the nudivirus. The nudivirus is a sexually transmitted disease that naturally affects corn earworm moths in some states. While working at Paratechs, a small biotech company in Lexington, Kentucky, Wright, along with her mentor Kendra Steele, a Paratechs research scientist, created the genetically selected form of the insect STD, which results in 100% sterility, which will overtake the naturally occurring virus in nature.

"All of the Bt crops that farmers are planting to fight pests that are causing other sorts of damage," said Wright, "they are able to overtake those crops because there is no other competition for pests."

Bt corn controls many insect pests, but the corn earworm is resistant and without competition from other pests, it’s an all-you-can-eat buffet for the corn earworm. Farmers are unaware of their presence, until the ear is exposed.

"It’s when they are little, little larva," explained Steele, "they sneak through the corn at the very base of it. They eat and grow and get bigger, you won’t know they are there until you de-husk the corn."

Paratechs was co-founded by UK entomologist Bruce Webb, who is also Wright’s academic advisor in the biotechnology program in the College of Agriculture, Food and Environment. He is excited and encouraged by the corn earworm project and believes it has a lot of potential.

"And so we think this is a way to bring in a safer and effective way to control these pests," said Webb, "and that would help us reduce the burden of pesticides in the environment."

Webb recruited Wright to work part-time at Paratechs which also helped fulfill part of her degree requirement in the biotechnology program to get research experience either at UK or with a private business.

"I want to be doing research," said Wright, "I want to be on the cutting-edge of everything and UK obviously has a huge reputation around the state of Kentucky for being one of these flag ship, land grant universities who can provide what they need."

The paper Wright wrote about the project won her the North American region of the Alltech young scientist program. She will now compete for the global grand prize of $5,000 and a full-funded doctorate. 

The University of Kentucky and Paratechs have applied for a patent on the technology.  Paratechs is also beginning a three-year environmental evaluation to show the virus can reduce earworm populations in the field.

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