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Hunting viruses to protect sugarcane crops

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

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

The team is sequencing the genetic information, the transcriptomes, in cells of two significant pests, canegrubs and sugarcane soldier flies. The aim is to determine what viruses the pests may harbor and then exploring how those viruses can be used.

Preliminary data is promising, with the team having already identified several new viruses.

Dr Etebari says the work could lead to safe replacements for insecticides. “Virus-based biopesticides have been safely used in agriculture for several decades,” he said. “Canegrubs are the most significant root-feeding pest, causing significant yield losses in Australia’s most productive sugarcane regions and farmers currently rely on a single insecticide, imidacloprid, which is currently under review here.”

Soldier flies also cause losses in some areas, and there are currently no effective control agents for them. “Innovative ways of using naturally occurring insect-specific pathogens as biopesticides will benefit industry growth, create economic gains for farmers and greatly reduce the environmental risks of pest management.”

Photo: Canegrubs are a significant root-eating pest of sugarcane. Image: Sugar Research Australia

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