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Scientists Say Field Test Of Altered Virus Could Mean Less Pesticides

August 10, 1989

GENEVA, N.Y. (AP) _ A pesticide made of genetically engineered virus was applied for the first time in an open-air field test in the United States.

The altered virus was sprayed Wednesday on a patch of insect-infected cabbage at Cornell University’s New York State Agricultural Experiment Station.

″I don’t think we’ll ever replace chemical insecticides, but if they are successful with this, it could mean dramatic cutbacks in the use of chemicals,″ said Maryjo Wilson, a University of Kentucky insect virologist.

Cornell entomologist Anthony M. Shelton spent 30 minutes spraying about 2,700 cabbage plants at the research farm in north-central New York.

The test’s purpose is to determine if a genetically disabled virus will disappear from the environment quickly after working on insects, rather than lingering in the field, said H. Alan Wood, a virologist from Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research and director of the project.

A successful test could lead to improved ways of fighting agricultural diseases and insects while lessening dependence on dangerous pesticides, he said. It is estimated that about 3 billion pounds of pesticides are used in the United States annually.

Scientists aimed their test at the cabbage looper, a pale green caterpillar that attacks more than a dozen kinds of vegetables, including cabbage, beets, broccoli and cauliflower.

The virus they are using is identical to naturally occurring strains known as baculoviruses, which can cause viral epidemics in many agricultural and forest insect pests. Researchers will remove a gene that provides a protective protein coat from the virus.

In a later phase, scientists will attempt to splice a new gene into the virus, one that would make it more deadly to pests, said Wood. The new, more virulent virus could be sprayed onto plants, where it would kill pests and die quickly.

Wood said development of viral pesticides has received favorable attention from the pesticide industry because of the rising cost of registering chemical pesticides with the federal government. By the time a company has finished the necessary testing and licensing requirements, it can spend as much as $30 million on a single chemical, compared to about $1 million to register a viral pesticide.

The test plot will be monitored through 1991.

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