Obviously, the release of any genetically engineered organism into nature brings with it a myriad of concerns.
The diamondback moth is a gigantic pest. It eats a range of crops, but is mainly resistant to insecticides, causing more than $5 billion in losses every year.
That could soon transform, though, as an international team of researchers has made a strain of genetically engineered diamondback moths that could curb the pest population in a maintainable way — and they just freed them into the wild for the first time.
For the research, published Wednesday in the journal Frontiers in Bioengineering and Biotechnology, the researchers engineered the moths so that when the males of the breed mated with wild females, the female offspring would die in the caterpillar life stage.
The male offspring, though, would continue and couple with the remaining female moths, imitating the cycle with their offspring till the whole population is reduced.
“Our research constructs on the sterile insect technique for handling insects that was developed back in the 1950s,” researcher Anthony Shelton of Cornell University said in a press release, adding that “using genetic engineering is only a more effective method to get to the same end.”
Before freeing the modified insects into the wild, the researchers marked them with a fluorescent powder. This let the team to check the moths to see how they’d work in relation to their wild counterparts — and they were content with what they saw.
“When released into the wild, the self-limiting male insects behaved in the same way to their non-modified equivalents in terms of factors that are related to their future use in crop protection, such as distance travelled and survival,” Shelton said in the news release.
Unquestionably, the release of any genetically engineered organism into the wild brings with it a myriad of concerns. The introduction of a modified species could have some unexpected impact on the species itself or the larger ecosystem.
But Shelton dismissed those concerns.
“What is exclusive about this technology is that it is species-specific, so the freed diamondback male moths only couple with female diamondback moths and do not influence other beneficial organisms in the field, such as pollinators or useful biological control insects,” said Shelton.
“This technology will not reduce the pest species because the gene goes away from the environment after a few generations,” Shelton added. “Diamondback moths will continue to live in other fields and on wild hosts.”