A company that’s pioneered the genetic modification of pests like fruit flies and mosquitoes to help control their populations is expanding its operations in Brazil, opening a new factory that it says could protect 300,000 people from mosquitoes, a dangerous disease vector. The BBC reports:
Small-scale studies in parts of Brazil, Panama and the Cayman Islands suggest engineered sterile mosquitoes can reduce wild insect populations by more than 90% when released into the wild.
The studies were carried out by the only company currently trialling GM insects, Oxitec, based in Abingdon, Oxfordshire. Oxitec, which was spun out from the University of Oxford, was bought by US company Intrexon for $160m (£106m) in August last year.
This isn’t the first time we’ve heard of Oxitec—the company has been making headlines for its development of a self-limiting gene for mosquitoes for some time, and in 2014 we heard about Oxitec’s progress in engineering a male fruit fly capable of only fathering sons, thereby leading to the collapse of the population of the pest.
Oxitec’s field trials introducing GM mosquitoes in Brazil have been highly successful, “killing 96% of the dengue-spreading mosquitoes,” according to the BBC. The fact that its parent company is now building on that success is highly encouraging news: these sterilization techniques can not only be a boon to public health, but also boost crop yields by targeting pests without using pesticides, and in so doing cut down on the collateral damage to other insect populations that those pesticides might cause.
Environmentalists tend to have a knee-jerk reaction against this sort of solution, but it’s exactly the sort of technology that could allow humanity to thrive while lessening our impact on our surrounding environment. Killing pests and saving lives with GM mosquitoes? We live in interesting times.