It's About Time We Honor the Scientists Who Studied the Screwworm’s Sex Life

Edward Knipling and Raymond Bushland were ridiculed at the time, but are being posthumously awarded for their innovations in insect control.

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Jun 22 2016, 2:00pm

A screwworm maggot. Image: John Kucharski/Wikimedia Creative Commons

Edward Knipling and Raymond Bushland were two 20th century entomologists with a predilection for studying the sex lives of Cochliomyia hominivorax, or screwworm. While this sounds niche, it wasn't just for kicks: The duo aimed to find a way of controlling the parasitic insects, whose maggots gorged on the flesh of living livestock and humans in the southern US before the 1960s.

"Screwworm research may sound like a joke, but it isn't," said Jim Cooper, a Tennessee congressman, who first proposed the Golden Goose Award, which honors scientists whose federally funded work was deemed wacky at the time, but which later contributed greatly to scientific research, in a press release. "It saved the livestock industry billions and is giving us a way to fight Zika."

From 1930 to 1950, Knipling and Bushland operated on a shoestring budget in field research stations in Florida and Texas. Yet when they first proposed their idea of releasing sterilized male screwworms into wild populations to cause their collapse, the entomologists, who received funding from the US Department of Agriculture, were met with ridicule from much of the scientific community, who decried the impossibility of "castrating" an insect.

Raymond Bushland and Edward Knipling. Image: World Food Prize Foundation

Despite the skepticism, the pair carried on, and several decades later, their sustained interest in screwworm sex and sterilization is finally being recognized posthumously with a Golden Goose Award.

Knipling and Bushland's preliminary work on the screwworm gave rise to a technique known as "sterile insect technique", which is being used currently in the fight against Aedes aegypti, the mosquitoes that transmit diseases like Zika. Sterile insect technique sees the release of infertile lab-raised male insects into wild native populations of insects of the same species. The sterile males compete with wild males to mate with females that the lab-raised males can't impregnate, therefore causing populations to decline. The technique was used to exterminate the screwworm fly in areas of North America by 1982, and has been used on species of fruit fly.

Modern day Americans might never have heard of the humble screwworm fly, but the scientists who dedicated their research careers to eradicating it have in many ways been instrumental in securing food security and public health for us.