Sex, maggots, castration and politicians lead to this year's Golden Goose Award

We can't really caption this image better than the  US Department of Agriculture, who took the photo: "Tusklike mandibles protruding from the screwworm larva's mouth rasp the flesh of living warm-blooded animals"(Credit: US Department of Agriculture)

This is a story about flesh-eating maggots, politicians, castration and the sex life of the screwworm – although not necessarily in that order. It also involves one particular Golden Goose, but in this case, it's not a bird kept by a giant in the clouds, but rather an award that honors federally funded scientific research that might seem "silly, odd, or obscure when first conducted, but has resulted in significant benefits to society." And in this case, those benefits extend to battling the bugs that spread the Zika virus.

To put this all in the proper order, it's necessary to travel back to scientific field stations in Texas and Florida in the 1930s, 40s and 50s. There, two entomological researchers, Edward F. Knipling and Raymond C. Bushland, figured out a technique to eradicate the screwworm fly, which was wreaking havoc with livestock across America and costing ranchers hundreds of millions of dollars per year in losses and pest management. The screwworm lays its eggs in wounds such as those found on cattle, pigs and chickens. The maggots from those eggs hatch and eat the flesh in the wound, killing a full-sized cow in under two weeks.

To stop the zombie-like insect from continuing to thrive, Knipling and Bushland devised an insect-sterilization technique that's still in use today. The pair postulated that if they could sterilize the male screwworms through radiation, they'd be unable to reproduce and the population would eventually dwindle. And that's exactly what they did, even though they were often mocked and told by colleagues that they could never "castrate enough flies."

By 1982 their technique had wiped out the screwworm all the way down to Panama and, according to The Golden Goose Award website, that has saved farmers and ranchers billions of dollars over the past 50-plus years, plus it has given US consumers an estimated five percent reduction in the cost of beef at the supermarket.

That kind of result, for an initial investment of just US$250,000 by the US Department of Agriculture, led the organization to bestow The Golden Goose award on the researchers this year. Sterilization is also one of the techniques being studied in regard to the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which spreads the Zika virus.

"Screwworm research may sound like a joke, but it isn't. It saved the livestock industry billions and is giving us a way to fight Zika," said Tennessee Democratic Representative Jim Cooper. "We should trust our scientists more than our politicians when it comes to research priorities."

Cooper piloted the Golden Goose Award project in response to Wisconsin State Senator William Proxmire's "Golden Fleece Awards," monthly awards he bestowed on projects he felt wasted federal funds. Unfortunately, many of those projects were science-based and led to the ridicule of some studies that actually led to major innovations – like studying the sex lives of screwworms.

The first Golden Goose Awards were given out in 2012 and have been bestowed annually. The organization that distributes the awards is comprised of an alliance of universities and other science-based institutes.

"Sometimes offbeat, quirky-sounding science is the best science, paving the way for discoveries years down the road which can revolutionize medicine, physics, biology, technology and how we view the world," said US Republican Representative Randy Hultgren from Illinois.

"Given the recent rise of infectious diseases like the Zika virus, developing eradication programs for carrier pests is a much-needed field of scientific research," he added. "Even though 'worms' might make some members of Congress – as well as the public – a little squeamish or skeptical of the research we invest in, these studies by Drs. Edward F. Knipling and Raymond C. Bushland have clearly paid off. I applaud them for their groundbreaking work." Hultgren has been a supporter of the Golden Goose Award since it began in 2012.

While Bushland died in 2005 and Knipling in 2000, they will be honored posthumously at a ceremony at the Library of Congress on Sep. 22. It will be the fifth ceremony for the Golden Goose Awards.

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