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United States Department of Agriculture

Agricultural Research Service

bug brains

Using Bug beetleBrain Chemicalshousefly

To Battle Crop Pests red beetle

Picture yourself as a scientist trying to figure out a way of controlling insect pests on crops. In this job, you would use your brain to figure out possible solutions. Right? After all, scientists have been doing that successfully for years—helping farmers clobber bugs.

flashing brain

gnat
brain in jar
ant

But now scientists at the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) are really getting creative. This time they are using the bugs' brains to figure out the answer. The scientists are still doing the thinking but they are using the bugs' brains against them—you could say they're "messing with their heads."

The brain is the insect's control center. But it relies on special chemical messengers called neuropeptides to help control many important activities, like digestion, growth, mating and molting.


worms in love

Another important activity is the making of pheromones—chemical odors that female insects use as a natural "perfume" to lure a mate.

Scientists like Ronald Nachman are turning these neuropeptides against their insect owners. Nachman works at ARS' Veterinary Entomology Research Unit in College Station, Texas. There, he has created artificial copies of neuropeptides found in the brains of tobacco budworms and cotton bollworms. Both are major crop pests.

 
cotton bollworm
Cotton bollworm on
(you guessed it!) cotton

In lab experiments, Nachman found that his artificial brain chemicals can trick these two insects into using up all their pheromones. labHe hopes this will ruin the pest's love life, and help farmers avoid using chemical insecticides to fight the pests.

 

But Nachman needed something greasy that could enter the insect's body from the outside. The answer, he found, lay in a combination of boron, carbon and other chemicals.

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For Nachman, the trick was finding a way to get the artificial brain chemical into the pests' bodies. Insect neuropeptides are naturally made of amino acids, tiny building blocks of protein

Usually, the pesky insectsbug produce their pheromone for three hours. But Nachman's artificial combo caused the pests bugto produce pheromone for 20 hours straight. Out in a crop field, that could leave female insects bugrunning on empty at mating time.


clockbug

bug

Nachman says commercial spray products containing brain chemicals may be ready for farmers in about 5 years. That could mean bad news for budworms, bollworms and other pests, like corn earworms.

As caterpillars, earworms munch on kernels of corn while they are still on the ear. (You may have seen one of these when you peeled back the leaves on an ear of corn.) Eww.

corn earworm
Corn earworm on
(you guessed it) cotton

Some pests, like the tobacco budworm and the cotton bollworm, don't always die when sprayed with insecticides. They have become resistant. worm


beaker of bugbrains But an artificial version of their brain chemicals might help tackle the problem. Scientists say it could also help protect the environment, as well as other creatures like honey bees.
growing vine
—By Robert Sowers, Information Staff, Agricultural Research Service

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Last Modified: 2/14/2011
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