Genetically Modified Insects: What Next?

London, UK - 19th June 2010, 08:45 GMT

Dear ATCA Open & Philanthropia Friends

[Please note that the views presented by individual contributors are not necessarily representative of the views of ATCA, which is neutral. ATCA conducts collective Socratic dialogue on global opportunities and threats.]

Most of us probably don't think about insects when we hear about Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). Yet many scientists believe that genetically modified (GM) insects hold great promise by providing a powerful tool to prevent unnecessary deaths. Approximately half the world's population is at risk from insect-borne diseases such as malaria, sleeping sickness and dengue fever. Millions of people are killed by insect-borne diseases and hundreds of millions more are incapacitated every year. At the same time, damage and disease transmission to crops and livestock by insects has a significant global socio-economic impact. Increasing resistance to pesticides, GM crops and climate chaos are making these insect-pests a growing problem. In laboratories around the world, scientists are using genetic engineering technologies to modify insects at DNA level to address important concerns including:

1. Socio-economic challenges such as increasing crop yield and production; and
2. Public health challenges such as human and animal well being.

There are concerns about how this GM technology fits in with other approaches to manage insect-borne diseases and the long term consequences of releasing GM insects into the wild. What are the benefits, risks and scientific uncertainties associated with such transgenic insects?

Transgenic Mosquito, Resistant to Malaria, with Gene to Fluoresce Eyes - PNAS

The Arizona Experiment

A few years ago, at a secret location in Arizona, genetically modified pink bollworms -- Pectinophora Gossypiella -- were released to see how they behave in the wild. They were the first GM insects to be released anywhere, and they were freed under netting. The intent was that if the experiment was deemed a success, the insects would be further modified and released into the great wide spaces where they would breed but produce no offspring that survive. In effect, they were modified to destroy their own species.

GM Crop Companies

Mutant insects are bad news for GM crop companies like BASF, Bayer-Aventis, Dow, Dupont, Monsanto and Syngenta because they sell genetically engineered plants to counter insect-pests etc. Farmers complain bitterly about the exorbitant prices charged and the fact that GM crops may not yield promised harvests or 'free' seeds for the next plantation. For example, Monsanto's GM crops are marketed as resistant to the insects which devour them but they need to be typically purchased every season and a good harvest may not be guaranteed. These practices have led to thousands of farmer suicides in Asia. To avoid paying GM crop companies, many farmers back the alternative, which is genetic modification of the insect itself. At the moment, farmers can:

1. Use chemical sprays to kill the insects; or
2. Irradiate insects in a laboratory because radiation makes the insects sterile.

Both measures are expensive. To find a cheaper way, the idea is to alter the insects' genes so that the bugs are rendered sterile. If genetically modified (GM) insects work, the farmers would then not have to buy GM crops from biotech companies. But the key question is: Will they work and will they be safe?

Key Applications

1. Advances in biotechnology have allowed for the possibility that genetically modified (GM) insects could be used to control insect populations or even replace them with 'harmless' engineered varieties, lessening the need for pesticides.

2. Insects are being genetically sterilised so that they no longer transmit disease through reproduction. Other approaches allow reproduction but disrupt the transmission of parasites. For example, GM mosquitoes are incapable of transmitting malaria, which is contracted by 300 - 500 million people annually and kills between one and three million worldwide per annum.

3. Insects are being engineered to produce pharmaceutical proteins. For example, GM silkworms are able to produce pharmaceutical and industrial proteins, like those used to create a particularly strong spider silk. This is turn can be used in the manufacture of bulletproof vests, parachutes and artificial ligaments.

4. Honeybees are being genetically engineered so that they are resistant to diseases and parasites, which have devastated the honeybee population in the last decade.

5. Kissing bugs are being genetically modified so that they are unable to transmit Chagas' disease, which currently infects 16 - 18 million people annually and kills around 50,000 people worldwide per annum.


The scientists involved say the strictest safeguards are in place. However, there is uncertainty about the lasting effects GM insects would have on ecosystems, public health and food safety once released. For instance:

1. Spread of Transgenic Traits: The success of some GM insects is contingent on the ability of fertile GM insects to replace wild insect populations and become established in the environment. Release of fertile GM insects increases the potential that transgenic traits could spread throughout the insect population, potentially making pre-existing pest problems worse or creating hitherto unforeseen and altogether new challenges.

2. Unintended Consequences: It is also possible that GM insects released to control the spread of disease could actually have the unintended consequence of enabling an insect to more effectively spread disease or even carry a human disease it was never before able to transmit.

3. Food Safety: There is the possibility that modifying the genetic composition of food-making insects such as honeybees could alter the composition of the honey they produce, potentially creating a food safety concern at one level and a human health hazard at another.

All of these uncertainties need to be carefully addressed by regulators both domestically and worldwide prior to the introduction and release of GM insects into the wild.

Fine Risk Management

Opponents say that already there are questions in regard to the ability of GM insects to transmit mutations to bacteria in the soil. Once bacteria mutate, the mutation could take on unpredictable paths with unknown unknown chain reactions. The difficulty is that there are no certain ways of predicting consequences. It is a matter of fine risk management. On the one hand, the benefits of cheaper crops are huge, not just for Western rich farmers in North America and Europe but for poorer farmers in Asia, Africa and Latin America, and for consumers the world over. On the other, though, the cost of getting it wrong in terms of destroyed ecosystems is incalculable and could be extremely high. Isn't this a similar issue to the drilling of oil in deep sea water? What happens when things go wrong and we have no way to stop the unknown unknown chain reaction? A black swan manifests and we created it!

Environmental Protection, Food and Agriculture, Rural Affairs

Much depends on how tough the national departments for environmental protection, food and agriculture, as well as rural affairs decide to be in their monitoring of the tests. There is intense pressure from the farmers to get the genetically modified insects approved because they see it is a cheaper alternative to buying GM crops. The unanswerable question is whether the key regulators would stand against the producers if doubts about potential danger started to surface in the tests that are and have been underway.

Where's The Regulatory Framework?

Although scientists are now on the verge of conducting wider-scale releases of transgenic insects, this research threatens to outpace regulatory preparedness. Whilst researchers are using biotechnology to develop Genetically Modified (GM) insects for a wide variety of purposes, governments across the world lack a clear regulatory framework for reviewing environmental safety and other issues -- such as food safety, agriculture, public health and rural affairs -- associated with GM insects. The benefits of GM insects could be significant, but governments worldwide need to move quickly to clarify how they will provide an adequate review of these insects and the many associated questions they now raise. Without clarification about how transgenic insects will be regulated, it is difficult to determine if the unique issues raised by GM insects will be addressed in a manner that inspires public confidence and provides the scientific community with water-tight guidance.

Cross-Disciplinary Experts

Cross-disciplinary experts in genetic engineering and environmental policy need to discuss urgently the state of the science and the resulting policy challenges facing parliaments across the world. While a number of laws could potentially apply to GM insects, government regulators have not indicated if they would regulate GM insects yet, or indeed how a regulatory review would be conducted, which agencies would be involved, or how those agencies would coordinate their activities with a common purpose.

International Issues

The absence of national regulatory clarity regarding domestic GM insect activity has broader implications for the global community. Insects can migrate from one country to another relatively easily. The trans-national mobility, global reach and colossal range of insects pose international regulatory challenges never faced with GM crops. Much of the public health research underway in regard to GM insects seeks to address insect-borne diseases most prevalent outside the jurisdiction of a single country. This means international regulatory bodies ought to be engaged before any insects are released in a plethora of nations including emerging ones. Given that national regulatory policies are an important building block in the development of international policies regarding GM insects, domestic lack of clarity and procrastination impedes development at the global level.


The current state of the biotechnology behind genetic modification of insects is in a state of high flux. The impact Genetically Modified (GM) insect research is to have on disease control and agriculture is colossal, yet this emerging field is still in its infancy. It is clear that insect-pests impose a social and economic burden worldwide through the transmission of disease to humans and livestock and damage to crops. Even if scientists are successful in producing insects that will not carry or transmit disease, they could face tough opposition from governments and a suspicious public, who may be opposed to releasing GM insects into the wild. Some members of the public could genuinely question whether we should be taking on the role of mother nature, given that we have neither the intelligence nor the foresight to understand the ramifications of GM experiments. At the same time, proliferating pest insects that affect crops and livestock can dramatically reduce yields and spread disease faster than ever before. Despite the genuine pressures, we still need to be mindful that deeper analysis is needed of the potential risks and benefits involved in the release of GM insects into the environment along with international and domestic legislation that regulates their release. Otherwise, we could genetically engineer a 'black swan' event via GM insects that affect a critical component of the food chain we hadn't considered in our original calculations. Could some of the lessons learned from the 'Deepwater Horizon' oil catastrophe apply to the release of GM insects into the wild too? Don't all creatures great and small have a vital role to play in our complex food chain and delicate web of life?


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