Research: using viruses to protect sugar cane

Monday, 09 October, 2023

Research: using viruses to protect sugar cane

Insect-specific viruses are being investigated in a research project at The University of Queensland to protect Australia’s $4 billion sugar industry.

Dr Kayvan Etebari from UQ’s School of the Environment is using genomics to identify viruses which could be delivered into environmentally safe biopesticides to attack pests like canegrubs and soldier flies.

According to Etebari, 20–40% of losses in the sugar industry are due to pests and diseases. The research team is sequencing the genetic information (transcriptomes) in the cells of canegrubs and sugarcane soldier flies. The aim of the research is to determine what viruses the pests harbour and how these can be used.

The team has already identified several new viruses. According to Etebari, the work could lead to safe replacements for insecticides.

“Virus-based biopesticides have been safely used in agriculture for several decades,” he said.

In Australia’s most productive sugarcane regions, canegrubs are the most significant root-feeding pest, causing significant yield losses. Farmers currently rely on imidacloprid, a single insecticide, which is under review, with a possibility of restrictions on its use in the future.

“Our research may lead to a genuinely sustainable control strategy with none of the damaging environmental impacts of the current pesticide,” Etebari said.

“Soldier flies also cause losses in some areas, and there are currently no effective control agents for them.”

Using naturally occurring insect-specific pathogens as biopesticides will benefit industry growth, create economic gains for farmers and reduce the environmental risks of pest management.

The project is funded by the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries and Sugar Research Australia.

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