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Spare the bees

New research may make for better-targeted pesticides that do their job but don’t hurt beneficial insects

Pyrethroid pesticides could be modified with a few molecular tweaks to eliminate pests while preserving beneficial insects like bees.

Those are the findings of researchers at Michigan State University’s entomology department in a study featured in the current issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

These pesticides target a protein known as the “voltage gate sodium channel” that enable rapid electrical signals. They bind to a ‘gate’ in that pathway and prevent it from closing. This overloads the nervous system, killing the insect. These products don’t have the same effect on mammals.

Ke Dong, and insect toxicologist and neurobiologist, honed in on a single protein that could afford bumblebees the same resistance.

“This opens the possibility of designing new chemicals that target sodium channels of pests but spare bees,” said Dong.

The scientists initially started with sodium channels from other bugs, such as mosquitoes, fruit flies, cockroaches, mites and ticks, to find where pyrethroids bind on insect sodium channels to effectively kill them. They got some help from nature.

“By examining wild mosquitoes that have become resistant to pyrethroids, we were able to help narrow down the potential sites on which to focus,” Dong said.

Future research will examine sodium channels from various pests and beneficial insects to explore the features of pyrethroid binding sites, which could lay the groundwork for designing new and selective pesticides.

It also will shed light on how pests develop resistance to insecticides over time and how beneficial insects respond to them in the field.

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