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Biotech ‘Terminator’ bug test raises hopes, concerns



Biotech: Scientists Created Genetically Engineered Insects to Halt Breeding

This summer, scientists are likely to release the first genetically engineered “Terminator” insect to help control a major pest plaguing cotton growers.

To release sterile but sexually active insects designed to mate with their wild relatives and prevent reproduction is nothing new, local scientists said.

But never before has a genetically engineered insect made its way into the wild.

Local biotechnology experts, however, predict the release of biotech insects to control natural pests may soon become as conventional for controlling pests as current methods of spraying insecticide, growing genetically engineered crops and releasing irradiated bugs.

“For 30 years, we have discussed a concept of integrated pest management , the best use of a combination of methods to control insects and produce high yields,” said Joseph Panetta, president and CEO of Biocom, the San Diego-based industry association for the life sciences industry.

Environmentalists, however, are worried biotech bugs may do unforeseeable harm to the environment.

Some biotech critics also reportedly think the government isn’t adequately prepared to regulate biotech insects.

The insect under scrutiny , a pink bollworm moth that contains a jellyfish gene , will first be set free and monitored under screened cages in a government-owned cottonfield near Phoenix, according to published reports.

The gene gives the moth larvae a fluorescence, allowing scientists to track the moths more easily.

Provided everything goes as planned, the next step would be to add genes that make the moths sterile. The idea for the genetically engineered moth is to mate with wild relatives to reduce the chance of offspring.

Considering the pink bollworm moth infests about 500,000 acres of cotton in the Southwest, farmers hope the “Terminator” moth will become a cheap alternative to current methods of pest control.

But Robert Staten, the U.S. Department of Agriculture scientist in charge of the field experiment, said in a published report the trial will be conducted conservatively and cautiously.

Staten expects the Agriculture Department to grant approval this spring for the release.

Dr. Glen Evans, CEO of Egea Genomics in Sorrento Valley, said there aren’t a lot of surprises in genetic engineering.

“Every time you release something into the environment, it’s out there and you can’t get it back,” Evans said.

That is precisely what worries environmentalists such as Bruce Beattie.

The president of subsurface waste management at US Microbics Inc. in Carlsbad, which develops environmental and waste treatment solutions, questions the long-term effect of biotech bugs.

He said these insects could mutate into an unfavorable characteristic over time or turn out not to be sterile.

But Steve Briggs, president and CEO of the Torrey Mesa Research Institute (formerly the Novartis Agricultural Discovery Institute) in La Jolla, said unpredicted outcomes are highly unlikely.

Briggs said modern biotechnology has allowed for much greater precision than natural genetic breeding.

Scientists can control genetic changes unlike in nature, where genes mutate randomly, he said.

He also finds a biotech moth is likely to be much more effective in areas of heavy infestation than its irradiated counterparts who are slow to mate.

But even people in the biotech industry have their limits. When asked about a disease-preventing mosquito that could deliver vaccines to the people they bite or carry their own antibiotics, Panetta answered, “that’s scary.”

He said such an undertaking would require lots of studies, but also serious discussions on ramifications.

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