Nov. 15, 2001 Vol . 22, No. 6

New insect lab serves, protects

By Stuart Colcleugh

SFU chemical ecologist Gerhard Gries (above) has spent years lobbying for pheromone-based monitoring systems around Vancouver harbor to detect new incursions of foreign insects before they can ruin forests, food crops and nursery stocks.

With the September launch of SFU's global forest international insect quarantine facility, he may finally have the means to make that goal a reality.

"We can now house live insects from anywhere in the world to pursue that, and other projects, we previously couldn't work on," says Gries, a leading expert at deciphering insect sex pheromones, the chemical attractants bugs use to lure mates.

The government-certified quarantine laboratory can house numerous exotic insect species, maintaining security through a system of airtight lockout chambers and precautionary measures that prevent bug escapes. Live specimens can be delivered from anywhere within days via escape-proof metal canisters. The facility will be open to all university researchers working on exotic insect projects.

Gries and co-researchers Grigori Khaskin and Regine Gries are currently using the facility to work on a pheromone lure for the Australian painted apple moth, which has cost New Zealand millions in eradication efforts since its arrival there a few years ago. "And we may well be next," he warns.

Like a host of other high-risk insects, "they could arrive here undetected as stowaways on visiting freighters and quickly become a major infestation, threatening the biodiversity and integrity of our ecosystems and the vitality of our foreign trade."

Using live specimens in the quarantine lab, Gries's team is "a few months away" from a synthetic pheromone New Zealand or Canada can use to help eradicate the moth. A similar project for the California government should help detect several Asian moths there.

It can take more than a year to develop a new blend, says Gries – time enough for an ecological disaster.
That's why Gries hopes to create a stockpile of the synthetic pheromones necessary for an "early warning system" of traps to detect incursions by species that pose the greatest menace to the country.

"We would happily participate in such a project, as would the forest and other industries," says biologist Reese Halter, whose Vancouver-based Global Forest research institute donated $25,000 to help complete the quarantine lab.

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