Insights into fruit fly could help crops

A tiny pest with the potential to destroy fresh fruit harvests is a step closer to being kept under control.

Scientists investigating the Suzukii fly - which targets fresh produce rather than rotting fruit - have unravelled the insect’s genes in a development that could help them create a targeted pesticide.

By understanding its genetic make-up, scientists hope to find out why the suzukii fly only eats fresh fruit - this may help to create an artificial fragrance that smells similar to fresh fruit, to confuse, trap and ultimately kill the flies.

Growing threat

The study could also help explain why the fly has spread from Asia to Europe and North America over the past five years.

Until recently the suzukii fly was known to spend winter in its home climate of South East Asia, but is has become hardy enough to survive northern winters.

It is now poised to cause damage to harvests in northern Europe. Recent reports indicate that the suzukii fly outbreak is escalating - the pest entered the UK last year and is at the borders of Scandinavia.

Fresh fruit

The fly lays eggs in and eats fresh fruit such as strawberries, cherries, grapes, pears, tomatoes, peaches and plums. Fruits are made inedible as the larvae grow and feed off their flesh, accelerating decay.

The researchers say their work could also provide clues as to whether or not the fly arrived in Europe in one movement or in several stages.

They add that if a crop is infected with the fly much of the fruit will be lost in the first year of invasion, with peaks of up to 80 per cent reduction in yield.

Once the fly is established on a farm, getting rid of it is virtually impossible. It is also a potential threat for the biodiversity and the ecology of the invaded areas.

It is great to be able to use our state-of-the-art equipment and skills to help with such a threatening pest. Finding the fly in the UK, after its rapid spread through Europe, was a significant blow to efforts to stop the invasion. We hope this new information will drive efforts to find control agents and preserve our soft fruit industry.

Professor Mark BlaxterGenePool Genomics Facility

The paper published in the journal Genome Biology and Evolution.

The research was carried out by the University’s GenePool Genomics Facility and Fondazione Edmund Mach in Italy. It was supported by the Medical Research Council and the Natural Environment Research Council.