British Biotech Firm Releases GM Moths to Help Curb Crop Damage

Scientists have created a genetically modified (GM) male diamondback moth in an attempt to dramatically curb the billions of pounds worth of damage it wreaks every year on crops.

The British biotechnology company behind the trial, Oxitec, has already conducted similar trials with GM mosquitoes to reduce incidences of dengue fever in Brazil. However, this is the first time the approach has been used to fight crop pests.

The diamondback moth (Plutella xylostella) has a serious appetite for brassica plants, such as cabbage, kale, broccoli and oilseed rape (canola), and is estimated to cause around $5 billion (£3.86 billion) in damage each year – especially in China, where cabbages are a staple.

Until now, controlling the moth has been problematic because it evolves resistance to pesticides very quickly.

To overcome this reality, Oxitec added a so-called ‘self-limiting’ gene to male moths which is passed on to their offspring. Female larvae die shortly after they hatch, while male larvae survive and pass the self-limiting gene on to their own offspring. A second gene that codes for a red fluorescent protein was also added so the moths could be more easily identified in the wild.

Oxitec released the GM male moths in New York State in August and September 2017. Between 1,000 and 2,500 moths were released on six separate occasions and their movements were tracked to see how far they travelled. This helped allay concerns about the moths straying outside a particular area. After all, the goal with such trials isn’t to completely eradicate a particular species, but rather create ‘moth-free’ zones where crops can flourish and pesticides are not needed.

With all the female offspring dying, the GE moths would eventually have no one to mate with and would inevitably disappear from the environment within a few generations.

What do you think? Are such GM insect trials a crucial component in helping sustain farming livelihoods in certain parts of the world, or should we not be meddling with nature? Tweet us @PolytecNews

Plutella xylostella – Diamondback moth – Image credit: Ilia Ustyantsev | Wikimedia Commons

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