Gries tunes in to insect pests

February 24, 2005, vol. 32, no. 4
By Carol Thorbes

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Bed bugs, mosquitoes, moths and other tiny pests that wreak untold misery, disease and economic devastation on society had better beware.

Gerhard Gries is now armed with a $2.5 million renewable grant over five years, enabling him to intensify his earth-friendly war on household, forest and agricultural insect pests. The Simon Fraser University biologist specializes in the chemical and bioacoustic communication of insects.

Gries is the first researcher at SFU to garner an Industrial Research Chair (IRC) from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) in 12 years.

The federal agency awarded only 17 of the coveted research grants to university scientists nationally in 2003-04. The official tally for this year has yet to be determined.

The award goes to Canadian university scientists working with industry to develop research that will fulfill important industrial and societal needs.

Gries' $2.5 million consists of $1.16 million from NSERC, and an equal cash amount from high profile companies involved in pest management. The grant includes another $100,000 in in-kind industry contributions, and $105,000 from SFU for new equipment and lab renovations.

Gries' IRC kept him from accepting an even more lucrative offer from a German university. Originally from Germany, Gries is internationally respected for unravelling the languages of love, defence and forage that drive insects to mate, suck blood, worm their way into tasty fruit, and denude forests.

Gries and his team have identified chemical and bioacoustic signals that insects exploit to find food, fend off attackers and entice mates. They have also discovered that insects pay attention to the presence and type of micro-organisms on a resource when they decide where to lay their eggs.

“Many of the insecticides we use today have been linked to water contamination and cancers,” notes Gries.

“Once we understand how insects communicate, we can come up with synthetic attractants that fool, lure, sterilize and even kill bugs without using toxic insecticides. In fact, earth-friendly substances derived from naturally occurring insect chemicals have already proven to be effective and safe for insect control.”

Working with 16 graduate students and five research associates, Gries has turned his lab into a beehive of activities and discoveries.

“On any given day in my lab, someone may have a breakthrough,” observes Gries. “But it requires a lot of funding to pay for the technology, equipment and time needed to decipher the complex and intricate communication processes that insects engage in.”

Gries' IRC will enable him and industrial sponsors to fine-tune their understanding of how bioacoustic and message bearing signals emitted by insects can be turned against them.

Phero Tech Inc. is a SFU spin off company that manufactures and distributes products based on message-bearing insect chemicals. It is developing, with Gries, products to control codling moths, houseflies, earwigs, and many other home and garden insects.

S.C. Johnson & Son, the Western Grains Research Foundation and Global Forest are developing, based on Gries' research, products to control bed bugs, the orange wheat blossom midge and the Asian gypsy moth.

While bed bugs can plague even the poshest hotels, the orange wheat blossom midge devastates wheat farms and the Asian gypsy moth defoliates forests, making them vulnerable to fire.

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