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The University of Cincinnati (UC) is decoding the genetics of agricultural pests in projects that could help boost crop and livestock production to feed millions more people around the world, ScienceDaily reported.

Joshua Benoit, an associate professor in UC's College of Arts and Sciences, contributed to genetic studies of New World screwworms that feed on livestock and thrips, tiny insects that can transmit viruses to tomatoes and other plants, causing billions of dollars in losses to agriculture. Benoit previously sequenced the DNA for genomes of dreaded creatures such as bedbugs. The New World screwworm's Latin name means "man-eater." These shiny blue flies lay up to 400 eggs in open cuts or sores of cattle, goats, deer and other mammals. Emerging larvae begin gnawing away on their hosts, feeding on living and dead tissue and creating ghastly wounds.

Benoit and his co-authors sequenced the genome of screwworms and identified ways of slashing populations by targeting genes that determine sex and control growth and development or even behavior that help the flies find a suitable host. The study led by entomologist Maxwell Scott at North Carolina State University was published in the journal Communications Biology. "Our main goal was to use the genomic information to build strains that produce only males for an enhanced sterile-insect program," Scott said. The New World screwworm is an agricultural menace that causes billions of dollars in livestock losses each year in South America, where it is common. The fly was a scourge in North America as well but was eradicated from the United States in 1982 with intense and ongoing population controls.

Benoit also contributed to a genomic study in the journal BMC Biology for an insect not much bigger than the dot over the letter i. Thrips, a tiny winged insect, are legion around the world and feed on a wide variety of crops, including soybeans, tomatoes -- even cannabis. They can destroy crops both by eating them and transmitting harmful viruses. In a study led by entomologist Dorith Rotenberg at North Carolina State University, researchers mapped 16,859 genes that helped understand the thrips' sensory and immune systems and the salivary glands that transmit the viruses. "The genome provides the essential tools and knowledge for developing genetic pest management strategies for suppressing thrips pest populations," Rotenberg said. One thrips virus is a particular agricultural concern: the spotted wilt virus, which studies have found can reduce a crop's yield by as much as 96%. It also has 96 sophisticated immune genes.

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