UBC researchers develop rapid test to detect invasive gypsy moth

Gypsy moths are an invasive species that can wreak havoc on B.C.'s forests, but a new rapid test developed by researchers at the University of British Columbia can detect the presence of the moths within hours and without a lab.

The gypsy moth, which can damage more than 500 species of trees, shrubs and plants, can kill young trees in only a couple of years by stripping their leaves clean. However, the moths can be difficult to detect just by looking at spots and bumps on a tree.

Enter Richard Hamelin, a professor with UBC's faculty of forestry.

He says the new rapid test is the culmination of 25 years of work in looking at ways to detect pathogens in trees.

"I've been interested in developing a quick test to identify pests and pathogens of trees, not just the gypsy moth, but any enemy of the forest, really, that, you know, we would have a DNA test that could tell us, identify rapidly the cause of the infection or the attack," Hamelin said.

The test works by amplifying the level of DNA in a sample to a level where it can be detected.

Sofia Rodriguez/CBC
Sofia Rodriguez/CBC

While the gypsy moth population is well established in eastern North America, it has yet to penetrate the West Coast in large numbers.

This makes quick detection of great importance, Hamelin said, noting that one female moth can fly up to 25 kilometres and lay 1,500 eggs.

"Acting fast allows us to nip the outbreak in the bud and prevent it from spreading," he said. "Every hour counts."

Previous DNA tests have been hampered in this regard, because samples would have to be sent to labs hundreds of kilometres away. The new test allows detection right in the field, allowing for the eradication or containment of any noted gypsy moth colony.

The testing kit — which can be contained within a backpack — will be sent out with foresters and forest technicians this summer before being developed further for broader use.

"We're going to put it in their hands to see if we can work out the kinks," said Hamelin.