Gentically Modified Insects

beeYes, we now have Frankeninsects. Insects that have been genetically tweaked in the laboratory, ready to be released in Europe to save crops. It’s advantage? The elimination of those savory insecticides in our food, especially in light of the fact that many bugs have become resistant to them, limiting man’s control over their destructive effects on agriculture. Oxitec, a British company, developed the technology.
WWWRecently, olive plantations in Italy has been ravaged by olive fruit fly damage, where the chemical used to control the pests has been banned by many countries and nothing else seems to be effective. Oxitec has genetically modified the male olive flies, which when they mate, the offspring will die at the larvae stage. And in their laboratory tests, the GM olive flies were eliminated in less than two months. Seems quite promising. Now thousands of these GM insects are going to be released into European fields as an alternative to insecticides, the actual field trial will be conducted under a netted canopy enclosing 24 trees.
WWWA caveat though comes from the director of the UKs GeneWatch, Dr. Helen Wallace, who warns that large quantities of the olive fly’s modified offspring will die as maggots in the fruit since they feed on the olive itself, not really protecting the crop, and will be introduced into the food chain, posing possible health risks to humans and the environment. So, the science is controversial as it will always be when we risk manipulating the highly complex balances of Mother Nature and the possible unintended consequences associated with doing so.

Disease Control

Insects are transmitters of some very serious diseases—malaria, dengue fever and sleeping sickness—malaria kills almost 1 million people each year, and dengue fever affects 100 million people each year. In the movie, Mary and Martha, both lost their sons to malaria. Mary, played by Hillary Swank, asks her politically connected father played by James Woods, for help in lobbying Congress for funding to combat the disease. He at first seems reluctant, but then refers to some notes he researched, and begins to elucidate what he found,

If you take every single person killed in a terrorist act in the world in the last twenty-years, and add to that all the lives lost in the middle east since 1967 in war, and you add to that every single American life lost in Vietnam and Korea, and every American engagement since then—Iraq, Afghanistan—if you take all these lives and you multiply it by two, that’s the number of children that die of malaria every year. 

These diseases have been controlled by using insecticides like DDT. Some of these chemicals are harmful to the environment causing a decline in beneficial insect pollination. One insecticide free method of controlling these disease-causing bugs is the use of the Sterile Insect Technique, where male insects are radiated into sterility and released to compete with the wild males, and therefore decrease the population by birth control.
WWWmosquitoeResearchers have now turned to genetic engineering, developing mosquitoes that are genetically sterilized. The Plasmodium parasite takes about two weeks to complete its cycle and travel to the salivary glands of the mosquito, then becoming infectious to humans; and researchers are working on GM techniques to render mosquitoes resistant to the parasite. Oxitec has already released GM mosquitoes into dengue fever plagued areas in the Cayman Islands which resulted in an 80 percent decrease in their population, and is now working with the governments of Brazil and Malaysia. Dengue fever is a problem in 100 countries
WWWOne ingenious GM technique that should be available in about five years is called the Semele strategy, creating male mosquitoes with a toxin that kills wild females, then creating females with the antidote to that toxin. Why? So the male GM mosquitoes can only produce harmless GM offspring with the GM females, while killing the wild females during mating, 

Possible risks

The risks of using GM technology on insects is controversial. Greenpeace is concerned it could have unintended impacts on ecosystems such as:

  • New insects or diseases may be replaced by the void the suppressed insects leave.
  • The new genes engineered into the insects may jump into other species…a process called horizontal transfer.
  • The releases would be impossible to monitor and any damage that may occur to the environment would be irreversible.

Child with malariaIn looking at the big picture, it must be acknowledged that the current problem of these diseases is wide spread affecting over 100 countries, mostly developing countries, and presently there are no vaccines to fight most of these diseases, thereby rendering population reduction of these disease carrying insects a viable method in ameliorating the suffering and death of millions of people. All new technology has its risks, has its downside. We just need to step cautiously, and take a lesson from Hippocrates,,,do no harm