Biological control for pests and diseases

Katia Moskvitch at the BBC tells us about biological control, also known as biocontrol. She says, ‘Biocontrol is an area of biotechnology that involves moving away from toxic chemicals, either by mass-producing a pest’s natural enemy or by introducing an exotic species to attack the pest.’

What an appealing idea. If people, crops, livestock, wildlife or wild plants are plagued by a pest or a pathogen (a disease-causing organism), introduce a living organism to kill the pest or pathogen. Sometimes it’s wonderful but sometimes it goes horribly wrong.

You might want to follow my link (above) to Dr Moskvitch’s article. She tells us of great successes, great disasters, and great hopes.

Hopes for biological control include a possible strategy for ‘vaccinating’ ash trees (Fraxinus excelsior) against the dreaded ash dieback disease by injecting fungi to live inside the tree and attack the dieback fungus (Chalara fraxinea). That idea is just an idea, at this stage, but it’s being proposed as a new research topic at the Centre for Agricultural Bioscience International (CABI). If tree vaccination can be made to work it might save ash trees from devastation.

About argylesock

I wrote a PhD about veterinary parasitology so that's the starting point for this blog. But I'm now branching out into other areas of biology and into popular science writing. I'll write here about science that happens in landscapes, particularly farmland, and about science involving interspecific interactions. Datasets and statistics get my attention. Exactly where this blog will lead? That's a journey that I'm on and I hope you'll come with me.
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7 Responses to Biological control for pests and diseases

  1. This is a very interesting idea; admitedly, I do not know much about the topic, but it nonetheless worries me a little bit. I am reminded of Australia. They have seen several cases that have gone wrong, rabbits and cane toads for example. Biological control is a great idea when the environment and all the interactions between organisms are fairly known; this is something that should not be done in a rush. I have yet to read the article, sounds interesting! Thanks for the post!

    • argylesock says:

      Yes it worries me too. The article I linked to starts with a tale of farmers whose crops benefit from aerial spraying with eggs of an insect which then benefits the crops. But oh my, if those were your crops, your livelihood, would you want those insect eggs? Maybe you would. Maybe not.

      Like you, I find that the phrase ‘biological control’ immediately triggers me into thoughts of rabbits and cane toads in Australia. But I’m learning and for the time being, my mind’s open.

  2. Finn Holding says:

    I’m not convinced by this solution to ash dieback. Technological solutions to these kinds of problems, when they affect whole populations can be fraught with difficulty and potential disaster, especially if, in this example, the prophylactic fungus is a non-native species. Us humans are very adept at focussing in on one issue and inventing an ‘ingenious’ answer, but failing to grasp the whole picture. And when tech solutions to such big problems are applied they have the potential to create even bigger and more difficult problems when it goes wrong.

    I think a better solution is to identify the individual organisms which appear to have natural resistance, determine the physiological basis for that resistance, then use horticultural means to create a naturally resistant population.

    • argylesock says:

      Yes I think so. Biological control scares me for much the same reasons that genetic engineering scares me. I understand people’s excitement about technological wizardry. But often if an idea’s a good one, evolution will have tried it and chosen it.

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