Brussels, 23 Sep 2004
Washington -- Scientists are researching ways that genetically modified (GM) insects could be used to stop the spread of diseases that affect livestock and crops, reduce pesticide use and create pharmaceutical proteins, said speakers at a "Biotech Bugs" conference held September 20-21 in Washington.
However, speakers said, more regulations need to be developed, and must be clear and coordinated among government agencies to ensure that the development of improved insects includes adequate risk assessments.
"U.S. regulatory policies will be an important building block in the development of international policies regarding GM insects," according to a report called "Bugs in the System?" from the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology, which sponsored the meeting.
Currently, the United States has no single law governing biotechnology. The industry is regulated under a number of different statutes, and subject to oversight by a variety of U.S. agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency, the Food and Drug Administration, the Department of Agriculture, and the National Institutes of Health.
The conference brought together scientists and regulators to share information about the emerging field of study of the use of genetic-engineering technologies to alter insects to reduce or eliminate certain agricultural diseases. But both groups need to take care to assess potential adverse outcomes of such genetic changes, said a conference speaker.
Researchers are particularly looking into ways that genetically modified insects could be used to control pests, saving millions of dollars in pest control costs and crop losses, and dramatically reducing the amount of pesticides applied to fields, according to a Pew report. Scientists are hoping to improve insects by increasing their ability to feed on weeds and pest insects through longer life spans, better toleration of climatic differences and greater resistance to disease and pesticides, according to the report.
The report summarizes other science-based insect modification efforts. For instance, scientists want to improve a genetic program currently being used in California to control pink bollworms, a threat to cotton fields. They want to engineer the pest able to carry a gene that would prevent pest's offspring from maturing.
Honeybees are another insect of interest to researchers. Bees, which provide pollination services in addition to producing honey, suffer from several diseases and parasites. Scientists are working to make them resistant to these threats and to certain insecticides to which they may be exposed when foraging in field crops.
Researchers are also studying ways silkworms could be made to produce a fiber known as spider silk, which, because of its strength, could be used to make improved bulletproof vests, parachutes and artificial ligaments. Scientists also want to develop silkworms that can produce more pharmaceutical proteins, which are increasingly being used in new medications.
Insect research includes efforts to genetically alter mosquitoes so they do not transmit malaria, which kills between 1 and 3 million people each year. It also includes attempts to alter what are known as kissing bugs, which spread Chagas disease, a parasitic disease endemic in Central and South America, and tsetse flies, which cause African sleeping sickness in humans and a similar disease in cattle.
The report is available online at: http:///pewagbiotech.org/research/bugs/