Radiation and Insects: Sterile Insect Technique (SIT)

Brandon Sugarman
February 21, 2019

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2018


Fig. 1: The screw-worm fly was the first pest successfully eliminated from an area through the sterile insect technique by the use of an integrated area-wide approach. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

During the 1930s and 1940s, A.S. Serebrovskii, F. L. Vanderplank, and E.F. Knipling all independently derived the notion of releasing sterile insects into wild populations to exert control over them. [1] In the years to follow, this practice would come to be known as Sterile Insect Technique (SIT), and would make use of ionizing radiation to prevent overpopulated pests from harming their surrounding environments. The underlying principles of SIT are simple, a large group of male pests are captured and sterilized using ionizing radiation. They are then systematically released over the designated target area using aircrafts as means of deployment, at which time the sterilized males disperse to mate with female pests. The sterility of the males ultimately leads to a drop in female reproduction and, over time, the target pest population is either suppressed or eliminated entirely. [2]

First-Instance of SIT

The first ever pest to be successfully eradicated using SIT was the screw worm (shown in Fig. 1). In 1954, on the 176 square-mile island of Curaao (off the coast of Venezuela), screwworms were eliminated in the span of seven weeks. This salvaged goat herds which provided the native people of Curaao with both meat and milk. [3]


One of the most advantageous aspects of sterile insect technique is that it leads to a big uptake in pesticide-free fruits. Studies in Madiera (a Portuguese archipelago) estimated that upwards of 2.4 million kilograms of fruit could be saved every year in madeira alone within 10 years of introducing SIT to the local New World Screwworm (NWS) population. [4] Additionally, "in addition to killing insects or weeds, pesticides can be toxic to a host of other organisms including birds, fish, beneficial insects, and non-target plants. Insecticides are generally the most acutely toxic class of pesticides, but herbicides can also pose risks to non-target organisms." [5] Clearly, insecticides can have unintended consequences that can be harmful to unrelated organisms and the usage of SIT eradicates this possibility.

© Brandon Sugarman. The author warrants that the work is the author's own and that Stanford University provided no input other than typesetting and referencing guidelines. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] W. Klassen and C. F. Curtis, "History of the Sterile Insect Technique," in Sterile Insect Technique, ed. by V. A. Dyck, J. Hendrichs, and A. S. Robinson (Springer, 2006), p. 3.

[2] L Alphey et al., "Sterile-Insect Methods for Control of Mosquito-Borne Diseases: An Analysis," Vector Borne Zoonotic Dis. 10, 295 (2010).

[3] Z. Polosky, 21st Century Homestead: Biological Pest Control (lulu.com, 2015).

[4] "Environmental Benefits of Medfly Sterile Insect Technique in Madeira and Their Inclusion in a Cost-Benefit Analysis." International Atomic Energy Agency, IAEA-TECDOC-1475, November 2005.

[5] M. W. Aktar, D. Sengupta, and A. Chowdhury, "Impact of Pesticides Use in Agriculture: Their Benefits and Hazards," Interdiscip. Toxicol. 2, 1 (2009).