Episode 12      26 min 34 sec
War Against the Cotton Bollworm

Assoc Prof Phil Batterham and Prof Derek Russell describe how genetics, proteomics, chemistry and field work join forces in the war against the cotton bollworm - a 5 billion dollar pest that is the scourge of farmers from Australia to Africa.

Guests:
Associate Professor Phil Batterham
Professor Derek Russell

Topic: War Against the Cotton Bollworm

"It's mind blowing that the annual cost of a pest could be 5 billion dollars and that a few million dollars is not expended one off to really look for long term solutions." - Assoc Prof Phil Batterham




           



Assoc Prof Phil Batterham
Assoc Prof Phil Batterham

Associate Professor Phil Batterham, Bio21 Institute, and CESAR

Prof Derek Russell
Prof Derek Russell

Professor Derek Russell, Department of Genetics, CEASAR, and NRI at the University of Greenwich (UK)

Credits

Host: Dr Shane Huntington
Producers: Kelvin Param, Eric Van Bemmel and Dr Shane Huntington
Audio Engineer: Craig McArthur
Theme Music performed by Sergio Ercole. Mr Ercole is represented by the Musicians' Agency, Faculty of Music
Voiceover: Paul Richiardi
Photography: Kelvin Param

Series Creators: Eric Van Bemmel and Kelvin Param

Melbourne University Up Close is brought to you by the Marketing and Communications Division in association with Asia Institute.

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War Against the Cotton Bollworm

VOICEOVER
Welcome to Melbourne University Up Close, a fortnightly podcast of research, personalities, and cultural offerings of the University of Melbourne, Australia. Up Close is available on the web at upclose.unimelb.edu.au That!|s upclose.u-n-i-m-e-l-b.edu.au.

SHANE HUNTINGTON
Hello and welcome to Up Close, coming to you from the Melbourne University Australia. I!|m Dr Shane Huntington and today!|s topic is the cotton bollworm. Over the last few decades the battle to defeat the world!|s number one threat to agriculture has raged. The cotton bollworm costing some 5 billion dollars a year world-wide has caused extraordinary damage to crops and livelihoods. In India cotton farmers have faced continued resistance by the bollworm to pesticides, leading to financial ruin and in many cases suicide. In Australia, it is conservatively estimated that this pest results in some 225 million dollars in damage every year. Today, we are joined by two leaders in the fight against this devastating pest. Professor Phil Batterham and Professor Derek Russell.

DEREK RUSSELL
Thank you.

PHIL BATTERHAM
Hi Shane.

SHANE HUNTINGTON
Hi guys.
Now, let!|s get your full titles rather than me sort of rattling them out because you both have quite extensive portfolios. Phil let!|s start with yourself.

PHIL BATTERHAM
I!|m an Associate Professor at the University, I!|m an Associate Dean in the Science Faculty and I!|m the Research Director for a special research centre, CESAR, which is the Centre for Environmental Stress and Adaptation Research.

SHANE HUNTINGTON
And Derek, you!|re visiting us in Australia, but formerly from the UK.

DEREK RUSSELL
Well, I!|m a very long term visitor. I!|m !V I !V I!|m still work for the University of Greenwich in the UK and we do aid science mainly for the UK government but also for other organizations. But it makes very good sense for me to be long term here in Melbourne because this is where the lead for this fight against the !V the bollworm is being undertaken.

SHANE HUNTINGTON
Okay Phil, let!|s talk about the !V the cotton bollworm. I guess it sounds somewhat innocuous and not !V not a !V not a big !V big problem, but it!|s a huge problem as I!|ve stated. Tell us a bit about it. What !V what is this, this little guy?

PHIL BATTERHAM
Well, the cotton bollworm is a moth. And in terms of cotton, it is a major international crop, it!|s a major crop for Australia, I think it!|s our number three agricultural export but in some countries such as India it!|s a huge money earner. But this particular moth, the name cotton bollworm is !V is really a !V a misnomer. It attacks over 100 significant agricultural crops and it has various names around the world. We call it the cotton bollworm. In India, they call it the American bollworm, they actually blame the Americans for it because it came into prominence at the point in time they started to grow American varieties of !V of cotton. In New Zealand, they call it tomato fruit worm. So various points around the world, it has different primary crop plants that it targets and it has different names.

SHANE HUNTINGTON
Phil, would we see this in our homes, like would !V would people see this flying around the backyard? Is it the sort of moth we see heading towards our outside lights?

PHIL BATTERHAM
You would see it but it!|s !V it!|s rather small. It !V it looks very innocent, but it!|s very aggressive. I!|d have to say that in the lab you can even get it chewing through plastic.

SHANE HUNTINGTON
Right.

PHIL BATTERHAM
And certainly that reflects the sort of damage that it can do to plants.

SHANE HUNTINGTON
Now Derek you!|ve been fighting this fight against the bollworm for quite a while. What I!|d like to do though is establish a picture of where things were before you got involved. So, what was happening world wide? You can be specific to countries if you like with regards to the boll worm, and the damage it was doing.

DEREK RUSSELL
Yeah. Well, in the late 1980s the !V the bollworm really exploded as a pest, particularly across Asia. So Pakistan, China, India, other parts of Asia, it was already a big issue in Africa, feeding on a wide range of crops, cotton, chickpea, pigeon pea, tomatoes, maize, wheat, vegetables, you name it. Really, it was chewing its way through it. But at that point in time it really exploded as a problem in Asia, for reasons we!|re not entirely sure of, probably connected with heavier insecticide spraying, perhaps controlling natural enemies of this pest. It suddenly went from being a relatively minor pest of major crops like cotton to being a really devastating problem across the whole region. So, you were losing 30, 40, 50 percent of your yield in cotton to this bollworm. So at !V at that time in the late 1980s, half of all the insecticide consumption in Asia was going on cotton and probably two thirds of that was for control of the specific species. I mean half of all insecticide for everything, domestic !K everything was going on to cotton.

SHANE HUNTINGTON
And in terms of actual productivity costs of cotton, how much of that cost comes just from the insecticide?

DEREK RUSSELL
Of the growing !V of the variable growing costs of growing a !V of growing cotton, across Asia in 1989, it was 45% of costs was controlling the species. So if you!|re talking about the actual cost feeding into the eventual cost of cotton, and certainly in terms of grower incomes, it !V it was the single most important economic feature for the crop. And Asia, China, Pakistan, India grows between them more than half of all the world!|s cotton, so we!|re talking about a mega massive thing. India alone is 8 million hectares of cotton, it!|s huge.

SHANE HUNTINGTON
So, I guess at the time the !V the strategy was to just dump as much insecticide as possible to try and kill off this pest.

DEREK RUSSELL
Nobody ever recommended !K but in practice that was what was happening because you !V you were spraying one thing, it wasn!|t killing them so you!|re spraying something else, that didn!|t kill them either, so you mixed the two together, you added the third one, you sprayed it again and so the costs of !V of doing this and of course and environmental hazards associated with it were going up and up and up. And they would be essentially pushing these millions of small cotton growers out of business.

SHANE HUNTINGTON
Let!|s fixate on that for just a moment. There !V there!|s two things you !V you mentioned then. One is the environmental effects, and I assume when you do this you affect a lot of other insects that are potentially your allies.

DEREK RUSSELL
Yes, indeed.

SHANE HUNTINGTON
And in addition the health of the farmers. I mean, can you mention those two and you know and what effect this was having?

DEREK RUSSELL
Yes, I mean if you looked at - I!|m thinking particularly of cotton fields now, !¢FDcause they!|re the biggest areas where this would have been true and of other crops as well, you !V you were essentially creating a biological desert with these things. None of the ladybirds none of the nice lacewings, none of the parasites that would otherwise have killed all the pest species, not just this pest species were able to survive in these fields, because they were being sprayed right from the beginning of the season, right through to the end of the season. So from that point of view it was a !V a huge environmental problem and in its own way an economic problem. But many of these materials are !V are highly toxic to us, to humans as well, so the sprayers of cotton were being continually covered using old fashioned spraying equipment, no safety gear, no breathing gear. They were breathing in all these highly toxic pesticides over the whole cotton season. So in one survey that we did, over a quarter of all cotton growers were experiencing health effects every year from spraying cotton in India, China and Pakistan. Massive!

SHANE HUNTINGTON
Phil.

PHIL BATTERHAM
Yeah, they were spraying up to 30 times a growing season. There!|s a significant amount of evidence that insecticide resistance in the mosquitoes that vector Malaria arose as a result of the use of these insecticides and therefore you know that!|s a huge impact on the global scale.

SHANE HUNTINGTON
How do insecticides work? I mean this !V I guess people have the common view [that] this is a poison but how does it actually do its job?

DEREK RUSSELL
Well, most of these insecticides that we commonly use, have common used are nerve poisons for insects. So, the attempt in making these things is to make them as specific as possible to the insect nervous system so that it doesn!|t widely other attack other nervous systems. But all nervous systems work on somewhat similar principles, and therefore, even the relatively less toxic materials like the pyrethroids, which are somewhat less toxic to us, a good deal less toxic to us, still if you spray them enough they!|re going to attack our nervous system as well as the insects!| nervous system.

SHANE HUNTINGTON
Is it possible, I guess ... I know, in terms of genetic engineering, and Phil, perhaps, you could answer this question for me, engineer the crop to do the job itself, so that we don!|t have to spray the insecticide?

PHIL BATTERHAM
I think there!|s actually two options, and one is to modify crops. And we!|ve seen that with a good deal of success in Australia and overseas by the introduction of the BT gene into cotton crops, and that has reduced the amount of insecticide usage dramatically, improved control, increased productivity, and it!|s very benign in terms of its impact on humans.

SHANE HUNTINGTON
Do the !V the bollworm eventually work this out and adapt?

PHIL BATTERHAM
At the moment, I can give a !V an equivocal response. There is a low level of resistance in the field, and it!|s been there for some time. The fact that it!|s not increasing in frequency would suggest that there is some significant cost to the insect in becoming resistant, meaning that it!|s unlikely to spread unless there are other genetic changes in the insect that would allow that !V that change to spread.

SHANE HUNTINGTON
Let!|s just get back for a moment to !V to Derek. Now you!|re in a situation where you!|ve come along, you!|ve seen this process of large use of insecticide, late 80s, early 90s and you!|ve gotten involved. What was !V what was the new plan of attack?

DEREK RUSSELL
Well, we could see that in addition to the pest being a major problem, the underlying cause, if you like, of that problem was the fact that the pest was developing resistance to the insecticides. So, what !V what we needed to know essentially was how were the pests becoming resistant to these insecticides. If they were resistant to one insecticide, were they also resistant to other insecticides, different classes, different groups of insecticides. And if they were not, could we use these in rotation, so that if you didn!|t kill it with a hammer the first time you could stab it with a knife the second time. And then, when we could get a !V a grip on all that. And that!|s not terribly easy to do, could we then put those into a !V a series of !V of advice to the individual growers which would let them rotate their chemistries, use different materials each time in such a way that they would not only control this species which is the key in the major pest species, but would still keep control of all the other things that are also problems on cotton. So, we tried to lift the insecticide off as much as we could, tried to use as little as possible as we could, but tried to use it more cleverly.

SHANE HUNTINGTON
I guess just to give people an idea of scale here, my understanding is that about 89,000 growers have signed up to this type of program in India alone.

DEREK RUSSELL
Yes, that!|s true, that!|s !V was the figure for this last year and in order to do that we!|ve got 1,000 workers in the field are working in over a thousand villages with these growers in all the 11 cotton states in !V in India just to take India as the example. But 89,000 large though the number is, is only 2% of all the cotton growers in India. So, we are having an impact. We!|re working in the areas where the cotton insecticide abuse was worse, and I think we!|ve begun to change the whole national attitude towards spraying on cotton. But it!|s a !V it!|s a big battle and when you have to do it person by person by person, farmer by farmer, it!|s clearly going to involve more resources over a longer time period than would be necessary if you could somehow do it genetically. If you could do it !V if you could come up with a clever solution which was essentially either in the bottle or in the plant, and the farmer didn!|t have to think closely about what he was doing.

SHANE HUNTINGTON
How has this affected the !V the livelihoods of the farmers involved? I mean you talked about the percentages in terms of cost for insecticide before. How has that changed and are these !V are these farmers better off?

DEREK RUSSELL
Yes. So, by spraying more cleverly at the right times and the right doses, we!|ve been able over that whole 89,000 growers just to take last year!|s example, to halve the insecticide use, so half the number of insecticides applied to use less environmentally harmful insecticides we got an average of 15% yield increase across all those growers and across all those states, and the consequence of more than doubled the profitability of cotton for those growers. And it!|s that doubling of profitability that!|s excited the national system, and now the Indian government is fully funding this certainly for the next Indian five year plan which runs from 2007 to 2011.

SHANE HUNTINGTON
And you!|ve been involved heavily in China, Uganda, Pakistan, and a range of other countries, how is the uptake going in those other countries?

DEREK RUSSELL
It!|s a slightly different system. If you take Pakistan for example the !V the average cotton grower size is much bigger, the extension system is much more effective, it!|s generally a more organised sort of a process. So you can actually sort of put out advice on the radio, you can put out advice out on television, you can write to growers, the number of growers is not so enormous. So those sorts of moves are more !V are more easy to make in places like that. China has a very active extension system, the BT cotton that Phil was just speaking about, the genetically engineered cotton that will control bollworm has spread now widely across China and probably 85-90% of all the cotton in China now is genetically engineered. And we!|re beginning to see that coming up in India too.

SHANE HUNTINGTON
You!|re listening to Melbourne University Up Close, I!|m Dr Shane Huntington and we!|re speaking with Professor Phil Batterham and Professor Derek Russell about the cotton bollworm. The genome for project for the !V for this particular pest, tell us about that Phil, I mean what!|s !V what do we hope to get from that and !V and how do we go about it.

PHIL BATTERHAM
Well, in recent years, I!|m sure your listeners would be aware that many genomes have been sequenced. That basically means taking the DNA from an organism and sequencing it from end to end, looking at the order of its basic constituents, A!|s, T!|s, G!|s and C!|s, and there are !V are billions of them. That!|s it in a !V a very simplified nutshell.

SHANE HUNTINGTON
Once you know that sequence, does that mean you could essentially build this organism from scratch?

PHIL BATTERHAM
No, that!|s a little bit science fiction. But what it does tell us is what differences there are, we can make comparison to other genomes that have been sequenced. So, we could compare for example this genome with the human genome and we can compare this genome with other insect genomes and say well here is a gene that makes a particular protein which seems to be unique to this insect, and absolutely required for the life of this insect to continue. Imagine that !V that protein being like a lock and we would design an insecticide which is like the key and that would fit into the lock and shut down that protein. And since that protein is required for the life of the insect, the insect is dead and we!|re looking for specific keys, specific locks that will shut down this insect and leave the beneficial insects in the environment untouched and certainly leave humans untouched.

SHANE HUNTINGTON
So, you gather this information. How do you physically implement this into a strategy that farmers will use, is it in the insecticide or is it in modifying the organism?

PHIL BATTERHAM
This is really important. These chemicals would be mass produced and could be applied pretty much as they are now, but the really important point and why it!|s !V it!|s very gratifying to me to work with Derek is that the critical thing in agriculture is the so-called extension work, taking the research from the lab bench, taking the product to the field and getting it used appropriately. And that!|s really the miraculous thing that !V that Derek is achieving in India in such a complex agricultural system with so many farmers in the field, actually getting them to do the right thing for themselves and the environment. In Australia, it!|s a little simpler I might add by comparison to India. We have a few thousand cotton farmers that are growing on massive acreages and they have !V being a smaller community and being relatively large businesses have understood the need to cooperate and to really implement area-wide management strategies if that industry is to survive in the country. And they have done it brilliantly. It!|s probably an example of best practice in the world of pest control.

SHANE HUNTINGTON
Derek, you gave a very good analogy in one of your recent emails to me as, !!!Othis approach is akin to the fire brigade turning up before the fire has started.!!L
How close is that to the truth there in terms !V

PHIL BATTERHAM
I think that!|s a great analogy and I!|m enormously frustrated that we don!|t know enough about the basic biology of the way in which insecticides and so we are always facing resistance not knowing in advance you know what type of resistance might evolve to a particular insecticide, not even knowing what the insecticide really does to the insect. And when you fight a war without any knowledge of your enemy, when you fight a war where you kill your allies, where you don!|t understand the targets in the enemy, when you don!|t understand the defence systems, you are doomed to fail. And there are thousands and thousands of documented examples now of failure of insecticides to control insect pests.

SHANE HUNTINGTON
But if we were dramatically reducing the numbers of this !V this particular moth now, what effect would that have on the rest of the ecosystem.

DEREK RUSSELL
Well, it!|s been quite interesting, that we !V we have looked at that in China. What happens when you take those key pests out of the system. You !V I guess there!|s two major things that happens. Clearly you !V if you remove the food source for the beneficials!K the ladybirds, the other animals that are actually doing a good job in the field, then you reduce their numbers. However since your main interest in those numbers was in them reducing the pest, perhaps that!|s not a serious or a major problem. You know where !V where we perhaps have a !V a !V a bigger issue is in relation to having removed the pest from the field and having stopped using all the materials that we!|re !V you!|re using to control that pest, other species which were accidentally almost being controlled by the sprays might come up to be a bigger problem. And some of the sucking pests, the aphids, the white flies, the !V the smaller insects that are sucking sap out of the plant, we were very worried that they might increase in numbers. And indeed there!|s some evidence in China that that!|s happening and there!|s some evidence that there!|s more spraying now going on to control those pests. You know it!|s not a one shot of perfect solution. If you !V if you stop spraying these materials, there will be impacts by health impacts, positive, biological impacts generally positive, but will give ourselves more problems that will then have to be resolved. I mean you !V we !V we definitely want something that which is !V which just affects the particular key targets that are problems for human agriculture. We !V we want to get away from this broad spectrum killing of all sorts of things, but if you incise something out of the system, then the system will alter and it will change and we do need to work on that. And we will !V and it will need further study and you know further research.

PHIL BATTERHAM
Within our research centre we are great believers in what is referred to as integrated pest management which is using really all available tools including insecticides and the beneficial biological control agents in an integrated way to exert control. And that means not using insecticides that kill the biological control agents. And that!|s a very active area of research with- within the centre.

SHANE HUNTINGTON
You!|re listening to Melbourne University Up Close, I!|m Dr Shane Huntington and we!|re speaking with Professor Phil Batterham and Professor Derek Russell about the cotton bollworm. Okay Phil, Derek, come to the crunch in terms of the numbers. This is a billion dollar problem worldwide, what sort of resources are being thrown at it, so you have what you need, what!|s limiting the work at this point in time.

PHIL BATTERHAM
Certainly, we need to do thorough genomic analysis. To sequence the genome of this pest at this point in time, [it] would cost maybe three or four million dollars and that money is not available. There is nowhere in this country where you can write a grant application and say, !!!O I want 3 million, 4 million dollars for a genome project.!!L
Derek and I have worked quite hard to marshal the international community together to get this done. We!|re really still working at that, that!|s a work in progress. We!|ve done lots of analysis of the genome but that!|s been fragmented and really if we!|re looking for that Achilles heel that I!|ve referred to a couple of times, we need to systematically characterise this genome from end to end. So I!|ve become quite a !V a lobbyist, activist in this area. It!|s mind blowing that the annual cost of a pest could be 5 billion dollars and that a few million dollars is not expended one off to really look for long term solutions.

SHANE HUNTINGTON
Phil tell us a little bit about the !V the Bio21 institute here in the University of Melbourne. What sort of numbers do we have working on this problem and just give us a little bit of background about the institute itself.

PHIL BATTERHAM
Well in terms of my research group there are 20 people which is post docs, students and staff. Probably a third of them are !V are working on this moth. And we have some excellent collaborations, internationally, through Derek with Keshav Kranthi!|s lab in Nagpur, India, with Professor Yidong Wu from Nanjing Agricultural University in !V in China, and others. So, there is an international approach there. What!|s wonderful about being in the Bio21 Institute is it!|s a multi-disciplinary institute. Now I!|m a geneticist, but insecticides we!|ve said are chemicals, they bind to proteins. I know very little about chemicals or proteins, and within the institute there!|s expertise on both of those, and there are large equipment infrastructures which allow us to look at the structure of proteins in detail, there are people with the skills to design chemicals that would inactivate those !V those proteins that might be targets for insecticides. So, it is a wonderful environment which allows us to !V to more comprehensively solve problems than you could with a single biological approach.

SHANE HUNTINGTON
And Phil you!|ve also set up, what is an absolutely fabulous website, fightthemoth.org and this is all part of what you call the Australian Genome Alliance, tell us a bit about those two.

PHIL BATTERHAM
Yes. well, that!|s getting into the area of lobbying. When I started to advocate that this genome be sequenced I found that there were other people advocating the sequencing of other genomes of !V of interest and significance to Australia, and if there was a queue where I could join that queue and !V and go and ask for money for the project to be completed I would!|ve happily joined the queue. There wasn!|t and I kept encountering these other individuals that needed genomes sequenced as well. So I was one of the convenors informing this organization called The Australian Genome Alliance and we really want to highlight to governments around the country the value of starting research and development pipelines and beginning them with genomeics and then bringing in other areas of scientific expertise, bringing in other sources of funding beyond government contributions so that at the end of the day we have products that make a difference.

SHANE HUNTINGTON
Gentlemen, I think it!|s fair to say that this is a problem that is !V that is global, it is extremely expensive, the two of you are !V are obviously waging a !V a war here that!|s got very little resources. This is you know sticks and stones against you know billions of dollars and I think you know my hat!|s off to the two of you with regards to the way in which you!|re doing that. An extraordinary amount of progress has already been made, hopefully a lot more with the sequencing of this genome. Thank you very much for being part of Up Close today. It!|s a !V a pleasure to hear about this incredible story.

PHIL BATTERHAM / DEREK RUSSELL
Thank you Shane.

SHANE HUNTINGTON
Melbourne University invites feedback, comments and suggestions from our listeners. Details in order to do this are provided via our website.
Melbourne University is brought to you by the Marketing and Communications Division in association with Asia Institute of the University of Melbourne, Australia. Our producers for this episode were Kelvin Param and Eric Van Bemmel. Audio recording by Craig McArthur. Theme music perform by Sergio Ercole. Melbourne University Up Close is created by Eric Van Bemmel and Kelvin Param. I!|m Dr Shane Huntington, and until next time thank you very much for joining us and goodbye.

VOICEOVER
You!|ve been listening to Melbourne University Up Close, a fortnightly podcast of research, personalities and cultural offerings of the University of Melbourne, Australia. Up Close is available on the web at upclose.unimelb.edu.au, that!|s upclose.u-n-i-m-e-l-b.edu.au. Copyright 2007 University of Melbourne.


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