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5-Animals: Genetic tinkering may control pests

-------------------------------- GENET-news -------------------------------

TITLE:  Genetic tinkering may control pests
SOURCE: Knight Ridder Press, USA, by Bruce Henderson
DATE:   5 Jul 2004 

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Genetic tinkering may control pests

RALEIGH, N.C. - Imagine a mosquito that can't spread malaria, a disease
that kills a million people a year.

Or honeybees that shrug off the diseases and parasites now plaguing them.
Or silkworms that spin spider silk so strong it's used in bullet-
resistant vests.

Now picture miniature winged Frankensteins that, once released on an
unsuspecting environment, can never be recaptured.

Tinkering with genes to produce new characteristics already has produced
agricultural crops that resist insects and disease.

Building a better 'skeeter won't be far behind.

"Some people are very hopeful, and they're thinking five years. But I
think 10 to 15 years is more realistic," before the first genetically
modified insects are released, said N.C. State University professor Fred

For now, such insects exist mostly in theory. Advances in molecular
biology and genetics research, by scientists like Gould, are expected one
day to make manipulating insect genes less expensive and more effective.

The public-health goal is to alter insects so they can't transmit
diseases or to reduce the numbers of disease-carrying vectors.

Mosquitoes in the Carolinas carry West Nile virus and eastern equine
encephalitis, which cause flulike symptoms in people and can be fatal.

In agriculture, modified insects could reduce the use of chemicals that
kill benign creatures as well as pests.

"We're developing a technology that lets you surgically target your pest
species," said Gould, who specializes in population genetics. "There's no
residue - you're not killing bald eagles." The pesticide DDT killed
mosquitoes while decimating the nation's symbol.

But for all their potential, releasing genetically altered bugs also will
be a point of no return.

The traits that make them special could also backfire. And unlike
modified plants, which survive only until a crop is harvested, insects
would become permanent parts of the environment. Their special abilities
could pass from modified insects to wild relatives, creating new pests or
pushing out native species. Some insects could become even more capable
of transmitting disease or carrying new diseases.

"One of the concerns is that if you spread a gene into a population, that
it's going to be impossible to get it back," said Jason Rasgon, a post-
doctoral researcher in N.C. State's entomology department.

"You do have the risk of opening Pandora's box and not being able to
close it."

Polls show the public also is wary of manipulated insects.

Using genetics to control pests dates back decades.

Federal agriculture officials eradicated screwworm flies in the 1950s by
massive releases of insects whose chromosomes were disrupted by radiation.

Millions of sterilized male pink bollworm moths are released each year in
California, limiting the reproduction of a major cotton pest. Despite
millions of acres planted in genetically modified soybeans, cotton and
corn, no designer insects have yet been released into the wild.

Researchers have mapped the genes of the parasite that causes malaria and
of the mosquito that most often carries it. They expect to soon do the
same on the mosquito that spreads dengue fever.


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