Genetically Modified insects – what’s all the buzz about?

Scientist around the world are testing how genetically modified insects could help with disease control or even eradication of lethal mosquito-borne viruses such as malaria, zika or dengue.

30 March 2020

Aedes aegypti Mosquito. Close up a Mosquito sucking human blood.Aedes aegypti Mosquito. Close up a Mosquito sucking human blood,Mosquito Vector-borne diseases,Chikungunya.Dengue fever.Rift Valley fever.Yellow fever.Zika.Mosquito on skin

By Mariusz Bogacki, Researcher and Science Communicator, Edinburgh

Genetically modified insects or genetically engineered insects are, well, insects that have been genetically modified! The modification occurs through processes of mutagenesis, transgenesis or cisgenesis.

Scientists in Italy have recently begun a new phase in this exciting field, by modifying the genomes of mosquitos. It is hoped that by engineering ‘gene drives’ some of the insects will quickly alter the genomic structure of the entire species. This is because, unlike normal genes that pass traits to only half of an organism's offspring, ‘gene drives’ pass traits to all of them. In other words, by having the ability to spread any type of genomic alteration through entire populations and ecosystems, genetic modification forces evolutionary changes. Engineered insects can eradicate an entire population of disease carrying mosquitos and help with saving endangered ecosystems by eliminating invasive rodents, as well as creating more efficient crops.

According to recent estimates, each year between 100-400 million people globally are infected by the dengue virus, and 200 million by malaria. Additionally, billions of dollars are spent annually to protect crops and livestock from insect damage. Using genetically modified mosquitos to help combat these challenges has therefore, and unsurprisingly, moved towards the top of researchers’ lists…

Scientists are currently working towards the first tests using GM mosquitos in a number of African countries which are the most prone to disease outbreaks. Not everyone, however, welcomes this initiative. There are concerns that genetic modification could have unexpected consequences on the entire biosphere of a region. Furthermore, residents of the selected countries in question fear that their ecosystems will become a testing ground for a new, still untested technology. Indeed, it is not yet known whether eliminating entire populations of mosquitos would cause a natural imbalance and lead to a creation of new diseases.

However, if done properly, genetic modification presents a potentially revolutionary scientific breakthrough. The determining factors in the future of genetically modified insects lie with government policy and regulations. It ultimately all boils down to scientific and technological progress versus ethical considerations – that’s what the real buzz is about!