A British university has been given a £200,000 (€326,200) grant to find out how to make insects unsure of their sexual identity.

ExoSect, a company attached to Southampton University in the UK, will use the grant to fund a two-year research programme to find the best method for controlling vine pests – which destroy 3 million acres of vines annually – through gender confusion.

Gender confusion is an effective though expensive method of pest control, practised widely by grape growers. Artificial female pheromones are released which make male insects incapable of recognising females, thereby reducing numbers as breeding falls off.

With the ExoSex Mating Disruption System, ExoSect intends to develop this technique into a cost-effective organic technology.

‘We already know that moth insect pests in vineyards can be controlled by disrupting the insects’ sexual desires,’ said Dr Guy Poppy of Southampton University School of Biological Sciences. ‘This project will allow us to find out more about exactly how it works.’

The Mating Disruption System works by contaminating male insects with female pheromones. The males are then unable to detect female insects because of the scent on their own bodies and are rejected for mating by female insects because they appear to be female. Contaminated males become attractive to other males, and on contact the pheromone powder is transferred from one male to another, spreading the pheromone contamination throughout the male population.

The pheromone powder is made from natural plant materials and so poses no threat to beneficial insects such as bees and ladybirds.

The grant was awarded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).

Written by Josie McLaughlin23 April 2002