A fruit fly once restricted to Southeast Asia is causing concern for growers worldwide as its march across North America, the EU and the UK continues unabated, leaving millions of dollars of damage in its wake.
Drosophila suzukii*, commonly known as the spotted wing drosophila, will be the focus of two studies that hope to use microbiology and robotics to stop the pest becoming even more damaging than it is already.
The spotted wing drosophila is unique in that it infects developing fruit, not rotten, mature fruit that other species in the genus prefer. It’s been causing headaches for growers in California in recent years, with some estimates putting the annual damage to summer crops such as strawberries, raspberries, cherries, plums, and other stone fruits at around half a billion dollars. But its march is also surely being noticed by backyard and allotment gardeners as well.
Researchers at the University of Lincoln, UK, will aim to reduce and ultimately prevent the damage the pest causes by trying to pull the wool over its eyes in a couple of ingenious ways.
Head of one project, Professor Matthew Goddard from the university’s Lincoln Institute for Agri-food Technology, said his study would focus on testing different strains of yeast to attract the pest away from crops. Although current attract-and-kill controls on the market have proven to be ineffective, Professor Goddard’s previous research has identified yeast strains that other drosophila species find highly attractive. He hopes to identify a strain Drosophila suzukii will find irresistible and, if found, it would presumably be made available to home growers as well.
The second project is being run by Dr Michael Mangan, based in the Lincoln Centre for Autonomous Systems, and will attempt to tackle the pest by using its own vision against it. He says:
“The eyes of insects see the world very differently to the way that human eyes do. For example insects can perceive UV light which humans cannot, and this might be the secret of how these pests pinpoint ripening fruits. As part of this new study, we will develop camera systems to mimic the vision of spotted-wing drosophila and explore whether or not it is possible to stop the pests from ‘seeing’ ripening fruit, just by changing the light conditions in which they grow.”
If the research is successful it could potentially forge an entirely new, environmentally-friendly way to control many insect pests. Plants don’t use UV light for photosynthesis, so using it to fool pests in some way would not have any impact on plants or the wider environment.
To read more, check out the University of Lincoln’s website.
*For those wondering, the answer is yes – Drosophila suzukii is named after scientist and environmental activist, David Suzuki. In his early research days he used another species of drosophila to study genetics, a common practice because drosophila have short life cycles and a number of generations can be bred in a short timeframe.