Hunting viruses to protect sugarcane crops

Canegrubs are a significant root-eating pest of sugarcane. Image: Sugar Research
Canegrubs are a significant root-eating pest of sugarcane. Image: Sugar Research Australia
Insect-specific viruses are being investigated to protect Australia’s $4 billion sugar industry in a research project at The University of Queensland.

Dr Kayvan Etebari from UQ’s School of the Environment is using genomics to identify viruses which could be developed into environmentally safe biopesticides to attack notorious pests like canegrubs and soldier flies.

" The Australian sugar industry generates around $1.7 billion in export earnings for Australia each year and supports 23,000 jobs," Dr Etebari said.

" But unfortunately, 20 to 40 per cent of industry losses are due to pests and diseases.

"We want to turn the tables on some of the nastiest sugarcane pests utilising Queensland’s very best genomic science."

The team is sequencing the genetic information, the transcriptomes, in cells of two significant pests, canegrubs and sugarcane soldier flies.

The aim is to determine what viruses the pests may harbour and then exploring how those viruses can be used.

Preliminary data is promising, with the team having already identified several new viruses.

Dr Etebari says the work could lead to safe replacements for insecticides.

"Virus-based biopesticides have been safely used in agriculture for several decades," he said.

"Canegrubs are the most significant root-feeding pest, causing significant yield losses in Australia’s most productive sugarcane regions and farmers currently rely on a single insecticide, imidacloprid, which is currently under review here.

"With restrictions on the use of this insecticide a possibility in the future, there is an urgent need to develop alternative, environmentally friendly control agents.

" Our research may lead to a genuinely sustainable control strategy with none of the damaging environmental impacts of the current pesticide.

"Soldier flies also cause losses in some areas, and there are currently no effective control agents for them.

" Innovative ways of using naturally occurring insect-specific pathogens as biopesticides will benefit industry growth, create economic gains for farmers and greatly reduce the environmental risks of pest management.