Controlling Insects with Radiation: IAEA Guide

Insect pests spread diseases. Mosquitoes, for example, are responsible for the spread of malaria, which affected 247 million people in 2021 alone and caused over 600 000 deaths. Parasitic insect pests, such as parasitic flies, can threaten whole ecosystems, putting at risk long-term conservation of animals and biodiversity. Other insect pests, such as fruit flies, moths, tsetse flies and screwworms destroy crops and livestock, threatening farmers' livelihoods, harming international trade and undermining global food security. According to official estimates, pests destroyed up to 40 per cent of global crops and caused $220 billion in losses in 2021.

The use of radiation can help in the regulation or management of pests - known as pest control - effectively preventing insect-related risks to human and animal health, the ecosystems and food security (including crop and livestock production). Methods using radiation for pest control include the sterile insect technique (SIT), inherited sterility and biological control.

What is the Sterile Insect Technique (SIT)?

The sterile insect technique is a method that uses ionizing radiation to sterilize large numbers of insects reared in a laboratory, which are then released over infested areas to mate with the wild pest population. As these sterilized insects are incapable of producing any offspring, the insect population declines over time.

Although both sterile males and females can be released in the cases of many insect species, for most, releasing only the males as part of SIT is more cost-effective. There are few key reasons for this. Firstly, sterile males are much more effective at hindering the reproduction of wild populations, because they actively search for wild females to mate with and can mate with multiple females. Therefore, releasing males only, speeds up the induction of sterility since the sterile males mate with the wild females only, without being distracted by the sterile females. Moreover, in the unlikely event of a fault in the sterilization process, this removes the risk of introducing fertile females into the environment. Secondly, In the case of insect species for which only males are released, the costs of packing and releasing the sterile insects are cut by half when compared against releasing both males and females. Thirdly, it is a lot safer, since in some cases, releasing female insects can have a negative impact - for instance, only the female mosquitoes bite humans in search for blood as a source of protein, and can spread deadly diseases.

(Infographic: Adriana Vargas/IAEA)

The SIT is one of the safest and most eco-friendly insect birth control methods available, which ensures environmental protection through a reduced use of insecticides. In addition, since sterile insects cannot self-replicate, this creates a long-term solution for the pest problem without running the risk of introducing non-native species into the ecosystem.

Since the 1950s, SIT has been successfully used in the global control of some insects affecting the health of people and livestock, such as the new world screwworm, the tsetse fly and disease transmitting mosquitoes, as well as in the control of insect pests that destroy crops and affect trade, such as the fruit flies and moths.

What is Inherited Sterility?

Moth pests can be rendered sterile, however, they require higher doses of radiation, which tend to weaken the insect's ability to compete with wild males. Instead, less debilitating semi-sterilizing doses are used to induce full sterility in the moths' offspring. This is known as inherited sterility (Infographic: Adriana Vargas/IAEA).

Inherited sterility, also known as F1 sterility, is another type of SIT, very similar to the traditional method, as it involves rearing, irradiation and release of semi-sterile male insects into a target area to reduce the mating of their fertile counterparts. In this technique, however, the reared and released male insects have a certain degree of fertility, but all their offspring is born sterile.

This technique is used when males of particular types of pests, such as moths, cannot be fully sterilized unless very high doses of radiation are used. A high dose, however, may weaken the insect and hinder its ability to compete with wild moths for reproduction. Therefore, this technique involves using much lower and less debilitating doses, which do not hinder the insects' opportunities to reproduce, but which induce inherited sterility in the moths' offspring.

This technique has a number of advantages. It enables the scientists to target species that require very high doses of irradiation to become sterile. However, the females are fully sterile after irradiation, since female moths tend to be more sensitive to radiation. The irradiated males are only partially sterile and give birth to fully sterile offspring. The release of partially sterile males with inherited sterility, often helps to suppress wild populations to a greater extent than an equal number of fully sterile males released in conventional SIT, since the males can produce multiple fully sterile copies in the next generation.

What is Biological Control?

A ladybug feeding off moth eggs on an asparagus plant (Infographic: Adriana Vargas/IAEA).

Biological control is a method that uses mass-production and release of the pest's natural enemies, such as predatory insects who feed off the pest's eggs and larvae, or parasites (known as parasitoids) that lay eggs into their host insect, killing the insect.

Unlike the SIT and inherited sterility methods, which are based on the use of nuclear techniques, in biological control nuclear techniques are only used for particular purposes. Radiation can be used to increase the applicability, cost-effectiveness and safety of rearing, shipping and deploying these natural pest enemies. It can also improve the results of the method and alleviate a number of constraints associated with it. For example, radiation can be used to reduce the cost of production of biological control agents. In case of parasitoids, for example, radiation can lower the host insect's natural defences (i.e. immune response) to increase the productivity and survival rate of parasitoids. Moreover, radiation helps to prevent development of the host insects, assuring that only parasitoids emerge from the pupae. In cases where some host insects do survive, the use of radiation ensures they are sterile in order to eliminate the risk of releasing fertile host insects, which can become pests in the new environment (see infographic below). In appropriate contexts, low doses of radiation can also stimulate the reproduction of some predators, which could be used to improve the effectiveness of biological control in environments where these predators do not threaten non-target insect populations.

Biological control helps to control insect pests, while by irradiating the host of the biological control agent no new pests are accidentally introduced into the environment. (Infographic: Adriana Vargas/IAEA).

Similarly, irradiation can help in the transport of predatory insects and parasitoids, often referred to as biological control agents. Parasitoids, for example, may require host insects in order to survive transportation, and predatory insects may need to feed off other insects. For this reason, they are often transported together with their "prey insects" or their eggs, which serve as a source of food during transportation. However, not all the insects being used as hosts of the parasitoid are affected by the parasitoid, therefore, in case these hosts manage to survive transportation and are released into the environment they will become pests. Irradiation of the host before transportation, will ensure that no new pests can be accidentally introduced to the area undergoing biological control.

What is the role of the IAEA?

  • Through the Joint FAO/IAEA Centre of Nuclear Techniques in Food and Agriculture, the IAEA assists countries in developing and applying radiation-based technologies, such as the SIT, inherited sterility and biological control to optimise insect pest management practices to improve food production, human health and preservation of natural resources.
  • The IAEA conducts research and develops new methods at its laboratories at Seibersdorf, Austria, to build knowledge and further improve the techniques, associated with mass-rearing, sterilization and quality control of major insect pests. Research findings, new procedures and methodologies are transferred to member states to improve their pest control practices.
  • The IAEA technical cooperation department, with assistance from the Joint FAO/IAEA Centre, is supporting the transfer of technology to manage pest species and to protect the indigenous fauna and ecosystems.
  • The IAEA also offers practical assistance including guidance and expert support, as well as the provision of biological materials to the member-states through its coordinated research projects and field projects. Through resource sharing, the IAEA plays a crucial role in the application of area-wide integrated pest management programmes. Click here
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