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Puzzle solved as maize pest reveals its Achilles heel

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23 March 2012

European corn borer larvae in a head of maize. Eric Burkness, University of Minnesota

European corn borer larvae in a head of maize.
© Eric Burkness, University of Minnesota

Scientists at Rothamsted Research have identified the crucial controls of population cycles of the European corn borer pest, which could help prevent damage to maize crops and thereby save billions of dollars.

In a study published in the prestigious journal Ecology Letters, Dr James Bell and Dr Alice Milne of Rothamsted Research, working in collaboration with America colleagues, led by Dr Bill Hutchison at the University of Minnesota, mathematically analysed nearly 50 years' data to detect cycles of the corn borer larvae.

Dr Milne said "Identifying population cycles in this pest will help us understand what to expect from this pest which has colonised the UK in 2010".

The European corn borer moth (Ostrinia nubilalis) is a pest whose larvae tunnel into maize crops and cause serious damage. Outbreaks in the United States have cost the American economy 1 billion dollars per annum. In North America across the US Corn Belt and much of southern Canada, the moth is naturally controlled by a disease that infects the larvae. The disease produces wave-like cycles in the population that last between 5 and 7 years.

Borer larvae overwintering in a maize stalk. Eric Burkness, University of Minnesota

Borer larvae overwintering in a maize stalk.
© Eric Burkness, University of Minnesota

In the mid-1990s, GM maize was introduced to control the pest further. An analysis of nearly 50 years data on the larval population of the European corn borer has shown that GM crops substantially reduced numbers when applied over a landscape and in large enough proportions. All other cycle collapses (mammals mostly) have been attributed to climate change as far as we know and we believe this is the first demonstration that host plant modification is a successful strategy to controlling pests, which need not be via GM and instead could be through breeding by making the plant less palatable to the pest.

The team is now developing a more detailed model that Dr Bell stated "will help farmers trying to produce maize for future UK demands. GM maize is not permitted in the UK, but there are other lessons we can learn from this study, particularly how manipulating the spatial distribution of the crop in the landscape can influence the population of the moth".


Notes to editors

Publication: Putting the brakes on a cycle: bottom-up effects damp cycle amplitude (10.1111/j.1461-0248.2011.01739.x)

About Rothamsted Research

Rothamsted Research, the longest running agricultural research station in the world, providing cutting-edge science and innovation for around 170 years. It receives strategic funding from BBSRC to deliver the knowledge and new practices to increase crop productivity and quality and to develop environmentally sustainable solutions for food and energy production.

External contact

James Bell, Plant and Invertebrate Ecology Department, Rothamsted Research

tel: 01582 763133 ext 2313

Alice Milne, Biomathematics and Bioinformatics Department, Rothamsted Research

tel: 01582 763133 ext 2380

Bill Hutchison, Deptartment of Entomology, University of Minnesota

tel: (612) 624-3278
fax: (612) 625-5299

Darren Hughes, Head of Communications, Rothamsted Research

tel: 01582 763133 ext 2673


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