Earlier this spring, Anthony Shelton found himself planting a cabbage patch with members of his lab in upstate New York.
“We’re A to Z here,” says Shelton, who is an entomologist at Cornell University. If “A” is planting cabbages, then “Z” is releasing into that cabbage patch insects genetically engineered to breed themselves out of existence—the first time such insects have ever been released in the United States. If the experiment works, it could herald a new era for pest control.
The insects in this case are diamondback moths, notorious among farmers as pests that cause $4 to $5 billion of damage a year worldwide. The moth especially likes to munch on Brassica plants, which include cabbages, cauliflower, and broccoli. And it has become increasingly resistant to available insecticides. So Shelton’s cabbage patch in Geneva, New York, is the site of a long-awaited field test to see if genetic engineering could control the diamondback moths. The test began in August and will run until the cold starts killing the moths off.
The moths themselves were engineered by Oxitec, the company perhaps best known for its genetically engineered mosquitoes: Male mosquitos carrying a lethal gene are released to mate with wild females, and their offspring die before reaching adulthood. Oxitec has carried out field trials of mosquitoes in Brazil, Malaysia, Panama, and the Cayman Islands, aiming to eventually mitigate mosquito-borne diseases like Zika, dengue, and yellow fever. A planned U.S. trial in the Florida Keys, however, has moved slowly because of local pushback.