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Scientists concerned about genetic changes in harmful insects

Natasha Kumar By Natasha Kumar Nov19,2023

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Anopheles can transmit the parasite that causes malaria.

The Canadian Press

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Canadians need to seriously discuss new technique for fighting insect pests with genetic modification, scientists say.

Their concerns are expressed in a new report from the Pest Management Review Agency, a branch of Health Canada that regulates pest management. use of pesticides.

Experts say genetic modification could be a powerful new tool as old insecticides lose effectiveness and climate change leads to new infestations.

Such techniques are already being used in trials to prevent mosquitoes from spreading malaria. The report's authors caution that there are many unknown variables. They claim that the consequences of releasing synthetic versions of natural organisms could be harmful and permanent.

The genetic profiles of insect pests are being turned against themselves by scientists, who are modifying the genomes of their familiar enemies in ways that give farmers and doctors new ways to combat them.

This booming field offers new hope against old scourges like malaria. And it could provide new tools as traditional insecticides lose effectiveness and climate change shakes up the cards.

However, concerns are buzzing around this new technology like a swarm of gnats.

Questions remain about the effectiveness of these tools, their security and their relevance. Is it appropriate to deploy gene editing in the natural environment and how will gene editing fit into the broader pest control toolbox?

A quote from Excerpt from a new report from the Council of Canadian Academies

Released last week, the report was commissioned by the Pest Management Regulatory Agency, a branch of Health Canada that regulates chemicals used to control insect pests. It's the start of what its authors hope will be an urgent and thoughtful debate about the possible role of a completely new way of eliminating these insects.

Genetic pest control tools could radically change our relationship with the environment, not only because of their potential impact on the ecosystem of which we are a part but also because of their challenge to social and cultural values that shape decisions surrounding their use.

A quote from From the report

Genetic pest control is being considered for several reasons, a said Mark Belmonte, co-author and biologist at the University of Manitoba.

Traditional pesticides are becoming less effective, either because insects are developing resistance or because communities are seeking what I consider safer alternatives.

A quote from Mark Belmonte, co-author and biologist at the x27;University of Manitoba

Climate change adds its own pressures.

We had very cold winters and it was great for insect control, Belmonte said. Now we're seeing a huge change where cold spells don't last as long or disappear altogether. We find that insect populations change quite quickly.

In addition, this technique reduces the use of chemicals and, unlike pesticides, it strongly targets a single species.

Genetic responses to these problems can either modify a genome to sterilize the pest, or modify something else that makes it less effective, for example by reducing its ability to survive the cold.

These two strategies can be used in two ways.

In one, a modified population of sterile males is introduced in numbers large enough to reduce and control an infestation. Modified insects should be periodically reintroduced.

In the other strategy, the insect – perhaps with a change intended to make it vulnerable to a chemical – is modified in such a way that its genome replaces the original genome in the overall population. The new arrival becomes the new norm.

Humans have been modifying animals through selective breeding for centuries. But it seems new, said co-author Ben Matthews, a zoologist at the University of Manitoba.

We're doing something fundamentally different, says -he.

Breeding animals to achieve desired traits gives years to evaluate their behavior and impacts. That's not the case with an organism modified in a lab and released into the wild, Matthews said.

Good specialists are uncomfortable with the idea of ​​playing God, he added.

Genetically modified mosquitoes are already being tested in Africa against malaria, a disease that killed nearly 620,000 people last year. This finding makes a compelling case for continued research, said Robert Slater, professor of public policy at Carleton University and chair of the committee that wrote the report.

Canada is just beginning to discuss how to regulate genetically modified insects, Slater said. This is not going to be easy.

The regulatory system is evidence-based. He must weigh what are the risks and what are the benefits. This is a brand new technology and we have very little evidence, he argued.

Mr. Slater said he and his colleagues recommend a slow approach with lots of what he calls exit ramps. Small field trials would allow regulators to learn how to work with local communities and provide much-needed data on effects and benefits.

Natasha Kumar

By Natasha Kumar

Natasha Kumar has been a reporter on the news desk since 2018. Before that she wrote about young adolescence and family dynamics for Styles and was the legal affairs correspondent for the Metro desk. Before joining The Times Hub, Natasha Kumar worked as a staff writer at the Village Voice and a freelancer for Newsday, The Wall Street Journal, GQ and Mirabella. To get in touch, contact me through my 1-800-268-7116

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