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New way to get rid of stink bugs could save farmers millions

Researchers using pheromones to get rid of stink bugs

Mating harlequin stink bugs. Photo courtesy of Jim Tokuhisa.
Mating harlequin stink bugs. Photo courtesy of Jim Tokuhisa. (Jim Tokuhisa)

BLACKSBURG, Va. – While stink bugs may be an enemy in your home, for farmers, it's far worse.

In Virginia, crops such as grapes, sweet corn and apples have been under attack by the invasive brown marmorated stink bug since 2004, according to Virginia Tech researchers.

For stink bugs to attract a mate or to communicate that they have found food, they use their own chemical language: pheromones.

Researchers have discovered insights into this chemical language, which can be used to develop alternative pest controls.

“We have gained a deeper understanding of how stink bugs synthesize pheromones, and this knowledge may allow us to produce pheromones in expendable food crops – also called ‘trap crops’ – to lure the bugs away from cash crops,” said Dorothea Tholl, a professor of biological sciences in the College of Science and a Fralin Life Science Institute affiliate.

According to Tholl, very little was known about the biosynthetic evolution of these insect pheromones, and the research she and her team has done has shown that stink bugs have their own enzymatic machinery to make pheromones without receiving them from symbiotic microbes or the host plant, as was previously thought.

There is commercial interest in using the genetic tools developed by Tholl’s team to produce the pheromones via synthetic biology for application in the field to promote pest mating disruption.

“Overall, we are excited about the prospect that our research has the potential to develop new pest management techniques,” says Tholl.