Field performance of a genetically engineered strain of pink bollworm
Pest insects harm crops, livestock and human health, either directly or by acting as vectors of disease. The Sterile Insect Technique (SIT) - mass-release of sterile insects to mate with, and thereby control, their wild counterparts - has been used successfully for decades to control several pest species, including pink bollworm, a lepidopteran pest of cotton. Although it has been suggested that genetic engineering of pest insects provides potential improvements, there is uncertainty regarding its impact on their field performance. Discrimination between released and wild moths caught in monitoring traps is essential for estimating wild population levels. To address concerns about the reliability of current marking methods, we developed a genetically engineered strain of pink bollworm with a heritable fluorescent marker, to improve discrimination of sterile from wild moths. Here, we report the results of field trials showing that this engineered strain performed well under field conditions. Our data show that attributes critical to SIT in the field - ability to find a mate and to initiate copulation, as well as dispersal and persistence in the release area - were comparable between the genetically engineered strain and a standard strain. To our knowledge, these represent the first open-field experiments with a genetically engineered insect. The results described here provide encouragement for the genetic control of insect pests.