(CNN)Genetically modified diamondback moths designed to wipe out wild pest populations were released in fields for the first time in New York state.
Diamondback moths are migratory pests found in the Americas, Europe, New Zealand and Southeast Asia, but especially in areas where crops can be grown yearround.
In these parts -- where it's not too hot nor too cold -- are where diamondback moths cause the greatest problems, including billions of dollars in damages to cruciferous crops such as cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower and canola. They're one of the most damaging insects because of their high reproduction rate and resistance to most insecticides.
To address these problems in a sustainable, environmentally friendly way, researchers have successfully genetically engineered (GE) male diamondback moths to control the pest population of their wild counterparts, according to findings published Wednesday in the journal Frontiers in Bioengineering and Biotechnology.
"There's a lot of interest in using genetically engineered insects for controlling medically important diseases," said Anthony Shelton, lead author of the study and entomology professor at Cornell University's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
"In agriculture, though, I think we can take the advantage of genetically engineered insects to control a major pest species."
Engineering a self-limiting strain of moths
The moths were engineered by Oxitec, a developer of insect biological control systems that is known for its modified mosquito releases to reduce mosquitoes that carry malaria or dengue fever.
When rearing the moths, developers incorporated what they call a self-limiting gene that makes female offspring die shortly after hatching.
Typically, tetracycline, an antibiotic used to suppress the gene, is included in the moths' diet so that female moths can be produced as well.
"However, when you want to release populations of males, you do not include tetracycline," Shelton said. "So all the female larvae that are feeding on the artificial diet will die. And then you'll just have thousands and thousands of males which you can release in the field."
In cabbage field studies in Geneva, New York (about 260 miles from New York City) the moths were marked with different fluorescent powders, released together, then captured in a trap. The GE moths behaved similarly to their wild counterparts in regard to factors that would determine their potential to suppress pests.