Genetic Insect Control

Pest insects do enormous damage to human health (through transmission of diseases such as dengue fever and malaria) and to agriculture (through damage to crops or livestock).  Our cross-disciplinary research programme explores ecological and genetic aspects of novel methods to control insect populations.  We focus primarily on a transgenic variant of the Sterile Insect Technique, an area-wide method of biological pest control in which large numbers of sterile pest insects are released; these mate with wild insects, but no offspring result, so the population’s reproductive potential is reduced and numbers are suppressed.

Integrating ecology and genetics

Inevitably with any new technology, questions arise to which regulators and policy decision-makers would like answers before implementing any large plans. As well as the obvious “will it work?” and “will it be too expensive?” we could ask “what will this mean for other species in the environment?” and “what if insects evolve resistance to this new technology too?” We aim to find scientific answers to such questions. We develop mathematical models, alongside laboratory experiments and trials conducted by our project partner Oxitec Ltd, a small British biotech company that is at the leading edge of producing transgenic insects.


Managing resistance by release of engineered male insects

Mass released engineered male insects homozygous for a dominant sex-specific lethality gene would mate with wild females and all female progeny would die, reducing the size and reproductive potential of the pest population.  In addition, by introgressing susceptible alleles through the male line these mass releases are predicted to be able to alter genetic make-up of populations and drive down the frequency of pesticide resistance genes.  In collaboration with Ben Raymond at Imperial College, and with Oxitec, we are conducting various experimental and theoretical studies to investigate such a system in diamondback moth (Plutella xylostella) in the context of managing resistance to insecticides based on Bacillus thuringiensis.  For more information see the BBSRC grants web site.


Science policy

Read our short policy note (2017) outlining the ecological risks of organisms containing gene drives and recommending an international approach to developing appropriate and proportionate guidance.  A referenced version is also available.

Read our short policy document (2013) outlining the need to consider benefits (to public health and the environment) alongside risks in the regulation of environmental releases of genetically modified organisms.  A fully referenced version is also available.  A related article appeared in Public Service Europe.

Please feel free to contact us with any comments you may have.


Selected publications

Alphey, N. and M.B. Bonsall (2014). Interplay of population genetics and dynamics in the genetic control of mosquitoes. Journal of the Royal Society Interface, 11, 20131071.

Alphey, N., L. Alphey and M.B. Bonsall (2011) A Model Framework to Estimate Impact and Cost of Genetics-Based Sterile Insect Methods for Dengue Vector Control. PLoS ONE 6, e25384.

Alphey, N., M. B. Bonsall and L. Alphey (2011) Modeling resistance to genetic control of insects. Journal of Theoretical Biology 270, 42-55.

Alphey, N., M. B. Bonsall and L. Alphey (2009)  Combining Pest Control and Resistance Management: Synergy of Engineered Insects With Bt Crops. Journal of Economic Entomology 102, 717-732.

People Involved