Genetically Modified Insects: Designed to Cause Extinction

21/07/2015 - 2 minutes

Insects can be very dangerous creatures, spreading diseases and destroying the yield. The British biotech company Oxitec developed a unique approach to potentially wipe out some harmful populations of these tiny animals. Studies on the diamondback moth are already showing good results!

Farmers around the world struggle with a serious pest caused by the diamondback moth (DBM), an insect that is infesting the cruciferous crops. The damage is estimated to cost up to €4,5Bn ($5Bn) each year, and current methods control DBM only poorly, especially as these insects are becoming increasingly resistant to insecticides.

To fight the pest, the Abingdon-based Oxitec wants to introduce genetically modified moths into the harming populations that are designed to eradicate its own species.

The approach is inspired by the Sterile Insect Technique, which has been used worldwide for more than 50 years. Male insects are sterilized by radiation and released to mate with healthy females. Because there is no possible offspring, the population crashes. However, instead of sterilizing the insects and thereby potentially affecting many genes and the insect’s ability to mate, the Oxford University’s spinout is betting on another technique using a self-limiting gene, that prevents the offspring from maturing.

Last week, Oxitec published results of first studies with the genetically modified moth. The insects were introduced to populations in greenhouses and were kept under controlled within 8 weeks, according to Oxitec. As a result, the wild type population rapidly diminished and eventually declined. The encouraging results should now be put to the test with follow-up studies under harsher conditions in upstate New York. These studies include field cage tests this summer, with plans of small-scale field releases for the near future.

The self-limiting gene technique has proven to be a versatile tool once before. Trialed against dengue fever-carrying mosquitos, it successfully reduced their populations by over 90% in Brazil, Panama and the Cayman Islands. Oxitec further flirts with the idea to attack mosquitos that carry malaria.

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Whether it is used to fight against diseases or pests, the self-limiting gene technique is quite an interesting approach and provides a species-specific alternative to insecticides. Of course, the intention of releasing genetically modified organisms into the environment, caused a new debate about long-term repercussions. One has to decide, whether the risk is worth taking or not.

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