Whether ants or wild bees: It is undisputed that insects are indispensable for functioning ecosystems and thus for the survival of mankind. In agriculture, however, certain species can become a nuisance. Even insecticides do not always help and also harm the environment. Researchers and companies are now pursuing a new strategy: Instead of treating plants, they want to defuse the harmful insects with the help of CRISPR gene scissors.
“Before CRISPR/Cas, the technology to manipulate pests simply didn’t exist,” says Peter Atkinson, an entomologist at the University of California, Riverside, who works on modifying the invasive cicada species. “We are now entering a new era in which genetic control of the problem seems quite realistic.” It would not only be an alternative to the use of insecticides, but also a strategy to strengthen crop defenses through genetic engineering.
Dwarf planthopper with “Teflon palate”
Atkinson and other researchers are concentrating primarily on the glassy-winged sharpshooter, loosely translated: Glass-winged snipers that are causing serious problems for winegrowers in California. The invasive insects fly farther than California’s native cicadas, breed more profusely, and can destroy even the sturdier lower parts of plants. In doing so, they transmit bacteria that they have previously ingested when eating diseased plants and that multiply in their mouths. With CRISPR/Cas, the scientists want to change the genome of the leafhoppers and thus the tissue structure of the insect’s mouth in such a way that bacteria slide off like on a Teflon coating.
Other biotechnologists are working to prevent harmful insects from reproducing. For example, Omar Akbari from the University of California, San Diego. He uses the technology to genetically manipulate nearly a dozen species of insects, including Drosophila suzukii. The species of fruit fly wipes out about $500 million worth of fruit crops across the US every year and has developed resistance to some common pesticides.
Using the gene scissors, Abkari’s team was now able to create sterile male flies. In the wild, they could reduce the overall population because the females they fertilize do not produce offspring. Agragene has licensed Akbaris Technology and is now looking to commercialize the new method of sterilizing agricultural pests. The first tests are to take place in greenhouses in the US state of Oregon before the end of this year. And the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) also wants to conduct greenhouse tests with fruit-damaging insects that have been sterilized with CRISPR/Cas.
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Recommended: a mix of different measures
Nevertheless, the use of genetically modified organisms is also discussed controversially. An intervention in the ecosystems can potentially always have undesirable side effects. It is still unclear whether and when there will be corresponding approvals for the release of the genetically modified pests. It is also being discussed whether and how such transgenic insects should be combined with other measures.
USDA entomologist Wayne Hunter is researching the genome of the Asian citrus pyllid (Diaphorina citri). These insects transmit citrus greening disease, causing billions of dollars in damage every year on six continents. Hunter certainly wants to use CRISPR to defuse the insect pests, but he is convinced that the key lies in genetically engineering plants. It is important to strengthen their immune system, he says. The USDA and a wine industry committee are also using a mix of measures, including genetic engineering of grapevines and the development of biopesticides.
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