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Newly discovered roundworm species could help limit pesticide use

Posted at 2:57 PM, Feb 26, 2024

RIVERSIDE — Chemical pesticides have come under a lot of scrutiny lately for their potential effects on human health and the environment. In fact, several cities across the country have started taking action to ban the use of some types.

Now, researchers in California have made an exciting discovery that's an alternative to chemical pesticides and could impact earth.

Nematodes are microscopic roundworms that often get a bad wrap in the agriculture community because some are dangerous to humans and animals and some kill crops. But there are also types that target insects.

“These are the good guys. These are often known as beneficial nematodes,” said Adler Dillman a professor who studies nematodes at the University of California at Riverside.

They enter insects through their openings like a mouth and then kill them within 48 hours from the inside.

There are 100 species of these good Steinermnema that researchers around the world know about and each has unique features that makes it thrive in different conditions.

Dillman was trying to sequence genomes for some of these insect-killing nematodes and received a batch from Thailand for his work. However, when he started running tests, he discovered that the worms he ordered were not the ones he got.

“It turns out it was a previously undescribed species. It wasn't like anything else that is known,” Dillman said.

The researchers decided to name the new species Steinornema Adamsi. These nematodes are completely safe for people and only target insects.

Dillman and his team are now working to understand the unique characteristics of this nematode to see if it's better adapted to humidity or a certain type of soil.

Then, farmers can use that knowledge in their application. many agriculturists already spray nematodes on their land rather than pesticides. It is more expensive but the worms self-replicate and can last multiple planting seasons, so Dillman says there's enormous potential.

“We have become more conscientious and aware of the damage, the ecological damage of chemical pesticides and their health effects, not only on humans, but on the rest of the environment, contaminating water sources and other things,” Dillman said. “Our food abundance, food security is a major global problem and insects cause a significant loss of global crop yield. Being able to use something that is environmentally friendly and ecologically safe, but can also significantly reduce insect herbivory of our crops will be beneficial to everyone.”

It's just one way researchers are trying to approach agriculture differently and impact earth.