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Scientists Alter Insects Using Special Genetic Element

By Tara Weaver-Missick
April 8, 1999

Agricultural Research Service scientists are using a special genetic element from moths that “jump” between chromosomes to genetically change insects. This special element could enable scientists to create sterile insects for release into the wild to disrupt mating of pest populations. It also could help the scientists mark insect populations for better tracking and monitoring.

ARS is the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s chief research agency.

Malcolm Fraser, Jr., an associate professor with the University of Notre Dame in Notre Dame, Ind., discovered the genetic element, called piggyBac, in 1985.

ARS physiologist Paul D. Shirk, in collaboration with researcher O. P. Perera of the University of Florida, is testing piggyBac to see if it will work in pests that invade stored products. A primary target is the Indianmeal moth (Plodia interpunctella), the number one stored product pest. Shirk works at ARS’ Center for Medical, Agricultural and Veterinary Entomology (CMAVE) in Gainesville, Fla.

Geneticist Alfred M. Handler, also with CMAVE, has successfully demonstrated piggyBac’s effectiveness in genetically changing fruit flies by using it to change their eye color. This shows that piggyBac can carry different genes into flies and is useful for changing or creating genetic differences in these insects. Fruit flies cause major damage to citrus and other crops worldwide.

An in-depth article on this research appears in the April issue of Agricultural Research magazine. The story is also on the World Wide Web at:


Scientific contact: Paul D. Shirk and Alfred M. Handler, ARS Center for Medical, Agricultural and Veterinary Entomology, Gainesville, Fla., phone (352) 374-5720 [Shirk], (352) 374-5793 [Handler]; fax (352) 374-5794;,