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A New Technology for Environmentally Safe Pest Control Discovered Inside Insect Cells

Contact: Janice López-Muñoz

August 27, 2021

If you feel you are in a continuous search to have a fire ant free home lawn, you are not alone. These invasive and common insect pests are difficult to control and come back as uninvited guests over and over.

The good news is that USDA's Agricultural Research Service (ARS) scientists, recently discovered a new technology that is safer than pesticides to control fire ants and keep them away. The technology, known as "receptor interference" (RECEPTOR-i), disrupts the vital processes (e.g. feeding, digestion, and development) needed for fire ants to survive, resulting in a natural biological control strategy.

"The concept and procedure for RECEPTOR-i has been developed over years," said Man-Yeon Choi, Research Entomologist at the ARS Horticultural Crops Research Laboratory in Corvallis, OR. "Now it is a proven technology that will serve as a model for other pest management strategies such as for spotted wing drosophila, thrips and pest slugs."

Robert Vander Meer and Man-Yeon Choi Left is Dr. Robert Vander Meer and right is Dr. Man-Yeon Choi while working collaboratively in this research. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Sandford Porter, USDA ARS retired).

The research published by Biomolecules, establishes how RECEPTOR-i technology uses the fire ants own cell components to target and screen for the small proteins needed to disrupt the insect's vital processes resulting in negative effects on their survival. Using the insects own cells is key to the success of RECEPTOR-i, since those small proteins can be obtained within 2-3 weeks versus other pest control strategy approaches that take longer and are more expensive.

"The RECEPTOR-i active ingredients are biodegradable, having no environmental impact and since it is species specific, it is not expected to affect other insects," said Robert Vander Meer, Research Leader at the ARS Imported Fire Ant and Household Insects Research Laboratory in Gainesville, FL. "This technology is broadly applicable to animal pests and the speed of discovery makes it ideal for developing a rapid control response to new invasive insects."

Fire antsFire ants. (Photo by Stephen Ausmus)

The use of this natural pest control technology will depend on the target insect. In the case of fire ants, it will be put together in a sucrose solution and presented for feeding in a bait station. For other pest insects the application of this technology will depend on the target insect's feeding type, e.g., chewing, caterpillars, piercing or sucking, mosquitoes and crop pest insects.

Fire ant control costs American households billions of dollars every year, hence developing effective and safer pest control strategies will be a great benefit to families and other economic sectors affected by fire ants. More research will take place for field experiments that will provide the data needed to stimulate commercial interest and get this technology to homeowners and others needing fire ant control.

The Agricultural Research Service is the U.S. Department of Agriculture's chief scientific in-house research agency. Daily, ARS focuses on solutions to agricultural problems affecting America. Each dollar invested in agricultural research results in $17 of economic impact.