A Billion Dollar Pest With a Bad Rap?


In the Broadway musical Wicked, the Wicked Witch of the West isn’t evil as much as she just suffers from bad publicity. In the agriculture industry, could the same be said about nematodes?

Most farmers have heard about the soybean cyst nematode, which is thought to cause at least a billion dollars’ worth of crop damage annually. However, there are several thousand species that inhabit Earth, and scientists have discovered that several species are parasitic against insects and even other nematodes.

This point has not been lost on researchers at the University of California, Riverside. They want to know – could these parasitic nematodes be deployed as an organic pesticide?

Adler Dillman, lead researcher and assistant professor of parasitology, helped sequence the genomes of five nematodes and says this newfound information could help answer that question.

“Although these nematodes are widely used in biological control against agricultural insect pests, their efficacy in the field is limited,” he says. "Now, with the genomic sequence, we will be able to use this genetic information in efforts to improve the efficacy of these parasites to prevent insect damage of important crops.”

Researchers targeted five nematode species that are used commercially and in home gardens that are marketed as beneficial. Dillman hopes these five sequences can be used in subsequent studies to, among other things, better understand how genes “know” when to turn on and off.

“In particular, we found the instructions in the genome for turning on and off genes that are involved in the development of neurons and muscle tissue,” Dillman says. “We have also found a number of gene families that seem to be involved in the parasitism of insects by worms, and we are excited to continue studying these in future experiments.

So go ahead and vilify the nematode – for now. But if UCR researchers can pinpoint a way to develop a commercially viable organic pesticide through a nematode species, these microscopic creatures might one day win back some of that bad publicity.

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