The sterile insect technique is protected from evolution of mate discrimination

J. J. Bull and R. Gomulkiewicz,  PeerJ,  10:e13301. 2022.

Background The sterile insect technique (SIT) has been used to suppress and even extinguish pest insect populations. The method involves releasing artificially reared insects (usually males) that, when mating with wild individuals, sterilize the broods. If administered on a large enough scale, the sterility can collapse the population. Precedents from other forms of population suppression, especially chemicals, raise the possibility of resistance evolving against the SIT. Here, we consider resistance in the form of evolution of female discrimination to avoid mating with sterile males. Is resistance evolution expected? Methods We offer mathematical models to consider the dynamics of this process. Most of our models assume a constant-release protocol, in which the same density of males is released every generation, regardless of wild male density. A few models instead assume proportional release, in which sterile releases are adjusted to be a constant proportion of wild males. Results We generally find that the evolution of female discrimination, although favored by selection, will often be too slow to halt population collapse when a constant-release implementation of the SIT is applied appropriately and continually. The accelerating efficacy of sterile males in dominating matings as the population collapses works equally against discriminating females as against non-discriminating females, and rare genes for discrimination are too slow to ascend to prevent the loss of females that discriminate. Even when migration from source populations sustains the treated population, continued application of the SIT can prevent evolution of discrimination. However, periodic premature cessation of the SIT does allow discrimination to evolve. Likewise, use of a ‘proportional-release’ protocol is also prone to escape from extinction if discriminating genotypes exist in the population, even if those genotypes are initially rare. Overall, the SIT is robust against the evolution of mate discrimination provided care is taken to avoid some basic pitfalls. The models here provide insight for designing programs to avoid those pitfalls.

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