GM insects are go. Genetically modified versions of a fly that decimates olive trees could soon be released in Spain in an attempt to control the pests. And in Brazil, GM mosquitoes are already at large as part of the biggest project yet involving engineered insects. The aim is to stamp out their natural counterparts, which carry dengue fever.
The techniques are opposed by anti-GM groups, but advocates say they offer a real alternative to spraying insecticides, and have the potential to provide a better and more precise tool to combat agricultural pests and insects that spread human diseases.
The olive fruit fly is a major pest to olive growers in the Mediterranean and California. Females lay their eggs in the fruit and the larvae destroy 15 to 30 per cent of the crop each year as they munch their way to freedom. To tackle this, Oxitec, a biotech company based in Oxford, UK, has submitted an application to the National Biosafety Commission in Spain to release a small contingent of male GM olive flies, in what would be the first field trial of its kind in Europe.
The males are equipped with genes that cause any female offspring they sire to die while they are still in the larval stage, before they have had a chance to reproduce. The idea is that the male offspring inherit the lethal genes and continue to propagate them through the population, until the number of females dwindles to zero and the species crashes.