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BUSINESS & POLICY: Transparency is essential for GE mosquito trials



                                  PART 1


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TITLE:   LETTING THE BUGS OUT OF THE BAG

SOURCE:  Nature, UK

AUTHOR:  Vol 470: 139

URL:     http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v470/n7333/full/470139a.html

DATE:    10.02.2011

SUMMARY: "Transparency is essential. The Malaysian authorities went to some lengths to inform people that the trials were going ahead, holding open forums and briefing the media, which gave the experiments wide coverage. [...] By contrast, efforts by the Cayman Island authorities seem to have amounted to not much more than producing little-reported leaflets and a video, posted on YouTube and broadcast on television, which failed to say that the mosquitoes were genetically modified ? the main concern of critics. [...] Oxitec acknowledges that there are lessons to learn from its experiences. Best placed to judge the results of this are the people of Brazil, the planned site of the company?s next experiment."

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LETTING THE BUGS OUT OF THE BAG

The public should be properly consulted ahead of any release of experimental insects. But what do they need to know, and whose job is it to ensure the message gets across?

In the week before Christmas, some 6,000 genetically modified (GM) mosquitoes were deliberately introduced to an uninhabited forest in Malaysia. The move took many local people and international observers by surprise. They had thought that the trial, which aims to investigate how long the modified insects live and how far they can fly, had been postponed.

The mix-up was down to the media confusing the trial with a second planned experiment, due to take place in a populated area later this year. But it adds to a growing sense of unease among some in the field about the way in which the public are consulted and notified about such experiments. The Malaysian trial, developed as an approach to controlling dengue fever by the British biotech company Oxitec, based in Oxford, followed the release of 3.3 million of the firm?s GM insects in separate tests in the Cayman Islands in 2009 and 2010.

There is no suggestion that any of the releases was unsafe, or contravened any law. In line with Malaysia?s biosafety rules and the Cayman Islands? draft rules, permits were issued after the relevant national authorities performed risk assessments.

But scientists and local people alike have taken issue with the manner in which the public engagement was handled, as well as the choice of the Cayman Islands, where, unlike Malaysia, biosafety considerations are not well developed. Even specialist researchers in the GM mosquito field ? hardly a sprawling sector ? say that they first heard about Oxitec?s experiments in the Cayman Islands only when the company announced the results at an academic conference in November.

If the release of GM organisms is handled badly, it could generate an unnecessary and unhelpful climate of suspicion. One problem is that there is no standard laboratory procedure when it comes to informing the public of such experiments. Moreover, is merely informing them sufficient? Given the farce over the use of GM crops in Europe, early buy-in and support from local communities would be a good way to deflect unfounded fears that could surface in the future, particularly given that early findings are promising. (Oxitec says the release of the GM mosquitoes in the Cayman Islands study successfully reduced the wild dengue-carrying population by about 80%.) But researchers who work on GM insects say that they are unsure how much public engagement is enough and who has responsibility for it.

Transparency is essential. The Malaysian authorities went to some lengths to inform people that the trials were going ahead, holding open forums and briefing the media, which gave the experiments wide coverage. The resulting discussion highlighted concerns. It also seeded an appetite for more information, which seems to have been responsible for the subsequent confusion over the trial?s timing. By contrast, efforts by the Cayman Island authorities seem to have amounted to not much more than producing little-reported leaflets and a video, posted on YouTube and broadcast on television, which failed to say that the mosquitoes were genetically modified ? the main concern of critics.

Researchers, both in the public and private sector, should do more to ensure that the relevant authorities make the relevant facts available, or do so themselves. It is they, not the authorities, after all, that will probably be the focus of protests and complaints if public engagement is handled badly. With this in mind, scientists at the University of California, Irvine, have developed and published a detailed and ambitious framework to engage the public in global-health initiatives (J. V. Lavery et al. Trends Parasitol. 26, 279?283; 2010) ? heavily based on their own experiences with GM mosquito research in Mexico.

In the absence of guidelines to help researchers to deal with local communities, the authors produced 12 of their own, which include rigorous site selection, to ensure that the purpose and goals of the research are made clear, and the use of focus groups and citizen councils to probe local opinions and to decide whether informed consent is necessary. Although many of the issues are common to such research, the decisions must be taken on a site-by-site basis, they say. The World Health Organization is also drawing up guidelines, which it says will help scientists to assess the social and cultural issues relating to their work.

Oxitec acknowledges that there are lessons to learn from its experiences. Best placed to judge the results of this are the people of Brazil, the planned site of the company?s next experiment.

So far, GM mosquitoes and other insects have largely flown beneath the radar. That will change sooner or later. It is surely better that the scientists involved bring them to the public?s attention, rather than have that attention thrust upon them by others.



                                  PART 2

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TITLE:   UC RIVERSIDE SCIENTISTS TO EXPLORE NEW GENETIC TOOLS IN MOSQUITO RESEARCH: TRANSPOSABLE ELEMENTS

SOURCE:  University of California - Riverside, USA

AUTHOR:  Press Release

URL:     http://newsroom.ucr.edu/news_item.html?action=page&id=2549

DATE:    11.02.2011

SUMMARY: "A team of scientists at the University of California, Riverside has begun working on a mosquito research project that, if successful, will provide valuable genetic resources capable of transforming the way mosquito research is conducted around the world. [...] Led by Susan R. Wessler [...] the researchers will study mosquito genome sequences to identify ?transposable elements? ? DNA pieces that can move from one genomic location to another."

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UC RIVERSIDE SCIENTISTS TO EXPLORE NEW GENETIC TOOLS IN MOSQUITO RESEARCH: TRANSPOSABLE ELEMENTS

Three-year research project funded by W. M. Keck Foundation

RIVERSIDE, Calif. ? A team of scientists at the University of California, Riverside has begun working on a mosquito research project that, if successful, will provide valuable genetic resources capable of transforming the way mosquito research is conducted around the world.

The three-year project, funded by a $1 million grant from the W. M. Keck Foundation, commenced this month.

Led by Susan R. Wessler, who holds a University of California President?s Chair and is a distinguished professor of genetics in the Department of Botany and Plant Sciences, the researchers will study mosquito genome sequences to identify ?transposable elements? ? DNA pieces that can move from one genomic location to another.

Transposable elements (TEs) play vital roles in gene and genome evolution by changing DNA amount and building up mutations. They contribute the raw material used by plants and animals to adapt to an ever changing environment. They are the most abundant component of the genomes of virtually all eukaryotes, accounting for almost 50 percent of the human genome.

?The mosquito genome-wide immune system is designed to inactivate TEs, and functions like a surveillance system,? said Wessler, a world leader in the computational and experimental analysis of TEs. ?In this project, when we search for TEs that can move within and between mosquito chromosomes, we will focus on endogenous mosquito TEs ? those encoded by the mosquito genome ? that have adapted to overcome the mosquitoes? immune systems. These TEs are not inactivated and may play a role in how mosquitoes adapt to their environment.?

Specifically, Wessler and her team will focus on a type of TE called miniature inverted repeat transposable element, or MITE, discovered more than two decades ago in Wessler?s laboratory. MITEs are known to be especially abundant in the three sequenced mosquito genomes ? those of Anopheles gambiae (responsible for the spread of malaria); Aedes aegypti (responsible for the spread of yellow fever, dengue and multiple forms of encephalitis); and Culex quinquefasciatus (responsible for the spread of many types of encephalitis and lymphatic filariasis).

?MITEs have evolved ingenious mechanisms to spread through mosquito genomes and overcome the mosquitoes? immunity,? Wessler explained. ?We plan to catch a mosquito MITE that is active or ?amplifying,? meaning a MITE that is increasing the number of its copies. Such a MITE can help us understand at the molecular level how mosquitoes adapt to their nutritional and external environments and go on to vector diseases. It can also clue us on how mosquitoes could be genetically altered as a means to control the spread of disease.?

According to Wessler, the project is considered ?high risk? in that there is no guarantee that active MITEs will be found in mosquito genomes.

?This is possibly why this project would not be funded by federal agencies,? she said. ?Past failures have led most in the field of mosquito biology to abandon TEs as valuable tools in genetic research, despite their use as powerful genetic tools in many other organisms.?

Wessler, however, remains optimistic. Her team includes Peter Atkinson, a professor of entomology and an expert in mosquito genetics and genomics. His lab pioneered the development of a technique for introducing foreign DNA into mosquito genomes and has developed several active TEs. Most recently his lab led the successful international consortium that published the genome sequence of Culex quinquefasciatus in 2010. Wessler and Atkinson will be joined by Jason Stajich, an assistant professor of plant pathology and microbiology and an expert in bioinformatics, evolutionary genomics and next generation sequencing analysis.

All three researchers are members of UCR?s Institute for Integrative Genome Biology and conduct research work in a building designed to facilitate and encourage interdisciplinary work. Stajich?s laboratory is on the first floor of the Genomics building, Atkinson?s is on the second floor, and Wessler?s is on the fourth floor.

?Close proximity allows for frequent interaction and collaboration, which is how modern science is best done,? said Wessler, who came to UC Riverside from the University of Georgia in 2010. ?We will take full advantage of the proximity our building affords and leverage the expertise of our three laboratories to identify the needle in the haystack: active MITEs in the mosquito genome. While it?s true the project is high risk, a positive outcome would have considerable impact within the mosquito research community, leading to a renewed interest and use of transposable elements as research tools for the genetic manipulation of mosquitoes.?

The researchers also plan to host on campus an annual seminar in transposable elements to present and discuss results of their research with colleagues in their fields.

Wessler is a member of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. This week, she was elected home secretary of the NAS. Atkinson, the director of UCR?s Center for Disease Vector Research, was a member of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases study section on vector biology for five years; he chaired the panel for two years. Stajich is an associate editor at Eukaryotic Cell and a section editor at Public Library of Science One. They will be assisted in the research by three postdoctoral fellows, yet to be appointed.

Based in Los Angeles, the W. M. Keck Foundation was established in 1954 by the late W. M. Keck, founder of the Superior Oil Company. The Foundation?s grant making is focused primarily on pioneering efforts in the areas of medical research, science and engineering and undergraduate education. The Foundation also maintains a Southern California Grant Program that provides support for the Los Angeles community, with a special emphasis on children and youth.