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23 July 2015

Tackling the challenge of dosimetry in controlling insect pests

Meeting participants preparing film dosimeters

Meeting participants preparing film dosimeters

Seibersdorf, 23 July 2015. Fighting major insect pests through a mechanism of insect birth control called the Sterile Insect Technique (SIT) is the focus of the scientists in one of the FAO/IAEA’s laboratories in Seibersdorf. Applying the technique accurately does not only require a thorough expertise in entomology, the branch of animal biology that relates to the study of insects, but also knowledge in and experience with dosimetry and radiation dose measurement: To sterilize the insects, the scientists make use of irradiation. Strengthening the link between these two areas of expertise in support of SIT projects is the objective in a dosimetry meeting held at the Seibersdorf Nuclear Application laboratories this week.

The concept of SIT is simple: Sterilized males of the target pest insect are released over the target area. These mate with wild females, leaving the population without offspring and thus reducing the pest population. “Insect programmes that apply the SIT are usually run by entomologists,” explained Andrew Parker, a research entomologist in the Seibersdorf laboratory that is part of the Joint FAO/IAEA Programme of Nuclear Techniques in Food and Agriculture. And this is where the challenge emerges: The SIT requires the scientists to apply an accurate dose of irradiation – a technique that is not part of their expertise, as Parker confirms: “There are only a few people who understand both the insects and the irradiation techniques.” But this is crucial for any SIT project to either conduct the irradiation in-house or to properly instruct the service provider if this step of SIT is outsourced. Only some countries that apply the SIT have a close cooperation between the SIT implementing organization and the irradiation service provider.

This need to better prepare project staff on the irradiation aspects of SIT has been brought to light from different sites, as Parker explained: “A recently finished Coordinated Research Project indicated that control of irradiation and accurate dose measurement are vulnerabilities that have to be addressed. Also recent research papers with a focus on SIT lacked proofs of the actual irradiation dose applied when sterilizing the insects, leaving the reader with mere assumptions.”

The Joint FAO/IAEA Programme and researchers in the Seibersdorf-based laboratory therefore are paying increased attention to address this need. Parker and Kishor Mehta, a former researcher in the laboratory, have been developing an e-learning course on dosimetry aspects in the standard operation procedure for SIT. The e-learning is currently being tested and will be available to SIT projects soon.

Furthermore, the e-learning is used for the current meeting organized under the IAEA Technical Cooperation Programme. The meeting gathers programme managers and technical staff involved with irradiation. Initially, it focused mainly on participants of a Latin American regional project on the New World Screwworm that is currently being implemented. “As the topic has proven of considerable interest to other countries, several participants from outside Latin America are also attending”, said Parker.

A large number of Latin American countries are participating in the regional project related to strengthening capacity on monitoring and control of the New World Screwworm. The ‘Eater of Man’ as the insect’s scientific name Cochliomyia hominivorax translates literally, produces larvae that feed on the living tissue of the host animal. Besides great suffering for affected warm-blooded animals and also humans, it causes great economic losses in livestock production. “Its eradication from North and Central America as far as Panama is one of the great successes of the SIT,” said Parker. The Joint FAO/IAEA Division assists Latin American Member States to develop the resources and capacity to eventually continue the success of the northern programme in the south.

For further information, please contact Mr Andrew Parker A.G.Parker@iaea.org.

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