From mosquitoes in the backyard to diamondback moths in canola fields, insect pests are more than an annoyance. They spread disease, ruin crops and cost billions of dollars in losses, from limits in productivity due to health issues to financial losses from control inputs and damage to fields. Oxitec Ltd., based in Abingdon, UK, has been studying methods of genetically modifying insects to control them in a way that is safe, effective and sustainable.
Simon Warner, Chief Scientific Officer at Oxitec, will be speaking at the Agricultural Biotechnology International Conference (ABIC 2014) in Saskatoon (Oct. 5-8) under the theme of ‘Emerging Technologies,’ introducing the application of Oxitec Technology in the biological control of agricultural and public health pests. Oxitec has fine-tuned the Sterile Insect Technique (SIT) of insect control through genetic modification (GM or GMO), creating male insects that mate normally with wild females, but produce offspring that do not survive.
The method is currently being tested in mosquitoes in areas that suffer from Dengue fever. Oxitec’s OX513A Aedes aegypti mosquito has received regulatory approval in Brazil and further testing is underway. Oxitec’s technology has also been successfully transferred to malaria-carrying species.
Similar technology, however, can also be applied to agricultural pests. “Agriculture currently uses pesticides and crops with GM traits to control insect pests,” says Warner. “Pesticide resistance in insect populations is increasing, and broad spectrum chemicals often affect beneficial insects. Oxitec’s pipeline offers solutions that are biologically based and species specific.”
Oxitec’s communications strategy is pro-active in addressing concerns from the public. That grew out of a long and expensive regulatory approval process. “Regulatory approval is not given unless the appropriate regulatory agencies are satisfied that all their questions are appropriately answered with the necessary data, and that the product is effective, safe and has no significant environmental impact. Regulators also often require public consultation to ensure an opportunity for all opinions to be formally raised and considered.”
Besides genetically modified mosquitoes, Oxitec has created agriculturally important GM products using Oxitec’s self-limiting genetic technology, including the diamond back moth, pink bollworm, Mediterranean and Mexican fruit flies, and the olive fly. Oxitec offers a solution that only affects the pest insect, involves fewer chemical inputs, and will not affect beneficial insects or predator populations.
Oxitec’s approach demonstrates the complexities that must be considered in developing biological controls, and Warner warns that “it’s a long and hard road to take an idea to market if you go down the GMO path. It’s not just about the science anymore; success relies on the technology, intellectual property, regulatory approval, the route to market, business and financial support and public and customer demand for your product.”
Is it worth it? Warner has no doubt: “The fact remains that GM technology can and does add real value to improve medicine, public health, agriculture and industrial technology. If you have a great idea, stick with it. Whether you’re a multi-national or a small start-up team, there have been great successes.”