New open resource will accelerate research towards better targeted crop protection

  • 07
  • FEB
  • 2023

A new database of 19 insect genomes encompassing some of the most damaging pests of crops worldwide has been made publicly available. It includes some of the most common pest threats faced by UK farmers including wireworm, cabbage stem flea beetle and pollen beetle, as well as other globally important species.

It is hoped that the new database will help speed up the development of novel pest control approaches that can overcome resistance and create more nature friendly solutions to crop protection.

The four-year Pest Genome Initiative (PGI), a consortium of Rothamsted Research and the agriscience companies Syngenta and Bayer, firstly sequenced the genomes, and then assembled them into their constituent chromosomes before adding information about what individual genes code for. 

The team say their efforts will help in the development of crop protection products that are more species-specific and overcome the problem of resistance. They will also help develop non-chemical pest control methods, such as manipulating insect behaviour; focusing on the genes that control how insects find mates and host plants and hence shepherd them away from crops.

Before the research team set to work, detailed genomes had been assembled for only a handful of the planet’s one million plus insect species – and even fewer of these were crop pests.

The team say their efforts will also help in the development of pesticides that are less likely to incite resistance evolving in their target species – a huge problem for farmers and often the reason for excessive pesticide use.

Rothamsted’s Professor Linda Field, one of the research leaders, said the future of farming would be ‘smarter’ and involve less pesticide use: dovetailing the electronic surveillance of insect movements and measures that encourage natural pest control, with these newer, more targeted pesticides.

She said: “Currently as much as a fifth of all crops are lost globally to pests, and this is predicted to increase to 25% under climate change. Whilst non-chemical control methods can have some success in reducing crop losses, pesticides remain a necessary weapon in our fight against devastating crop losses and will so for the foreseeable future.”

Pesticides have long been implicated in wider biodiversity declines, most notably with the impact some neonicotinoids have on bee populations, leading to the subsequent banning of these pesticides in Europe.

By assembling these detailed genome ‘maps’ of annotated sequences, researchers can start to develop the next generation of pesticides – ones that very specifically target the pest whilst leaving other species unharmed, said Professor Field.

All the pests included in the Pest Genomics Initiative are well known for attacking vitally important crops worldwide, including oilseeds, vegetables, cereals, fruits, beans, sugar and cotton.

The hope is that by having these higher quality genomes available, researchers will be able to better understand how resistance to pesticides evolves – and it will also improve their understanding of insect chemical communication channels, opening up the possibility of non-lethal control methods that ‘hijack’ insect behaviour.

“Understanding the pests’ genes means we can understand the specific proteins they make. By comparing these proteins to the proteins made by non-target species, we can tailor control methods that only work on pests. Examples include those proteins that allow pests to de-toxify pesticides, the basis of much evolved resistance.”

Another exciting area for research will be into the genes involved in insect behaviour, the so-called odorant binding proteins and receptors, which allow insects to find mates or host plants. she added.

“If we can produce products that target those, we can potentially manipulate pest behaviour and shepherd them away from the crops.”

A further use for these genome sequences is in identifying insect species that have the potential to switch diets to feed on other crops – something that may become an issue in certain countries as pests migrate or new crops are grown as the climate changes.

The genomes will also be an important resource for the wider entomological community studying insect evolution, physiology, biochemistry and ecology. 

In recognition of the fact that the future of pest management will involve both better targeted chemicals and other techniques, the project also assembled the genomes of three beneficial insects, the European hoverfly, and the pirate bug, both of which predate crop pest species, as well as a species of parasitoid wasp that lays its eggs inside the crop pest, the cabbage stem flea beetle.

Professor Field said: “It’s important we understand differences between insect species, so that we can both protect crops from pests and conserve beneficials. 

About Rothamsted Research
Rothamsted Research is the longest-running agricultural research institute in the world. We work from gene to field with a proud history of ground-breaking discoveries, from crop treatment to crop protection, from statistical interpretation to soils management. Our founders, in 1843, were the pioneers of modern agriculture, and we are known for our imaginative science and our collaborative influence on fresh thinking and farming practices.
Through independent science and innovation, we make significant contributions to improving agri-food systems in the UK and internationally. In terms of the institute’s economic contribution, the cumulative impact of our work in the UK was calculated to exceed £3000 million a year in 20151. Our strength lies in our systems approach, which combines science and strategic research, interdisciplinary teams and partnerships.
Rothamsted is also home to three unique resources. These National Capabilities are open to researchers from all over the world: The Long-Term Experiments, Rothamsted Insect Survey and the North Wyke Farm Platform.
We are strategically funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), with additional support from other national and international funding streams, and from industry. We are also supported by the Lawes Agricultural Trust (LAT).
For more information, visit; Twitter @Rothamsted
1Rothamsted Research and the Value of Excellence: A synthesis of the available evidence, by Séan Rickard (Oct 2015)

The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council is part of UK Research and Innovation, a non-departmental public body funded by a grant-in-aid from the UK government.
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About LAT
The Lawes Agricultural Trust, established in 1889 by Sir John Bennet Lawes, supports Rothamsted Research’s national and international agricultural science through the provision of land, facilities and funding. LAT, a charitable trust, owns the estates at Harpenden and Broom's Barn, including many of the buildings used by Rothamsted Research. LAT provides an annual research grant to the Director, accommodation for nearly 200 people, and support for fellowships for young scientists from developing countries. LAT also makes capital grants to help modernise facilities at Rothamsted, or invests in new buildings.