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Genetically Engineered Insects: A Boon or Curse?

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  • July-December 2014
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    The age of genetic engineering and biotechnology has enabled the humanity to save lives and make them better and to upgrade lifestyles in many ways. Ongoing research and innovations in these fields aims at diverse areas from advancing health care facilities to increasing crop production to boost food supply, undoubtedly adding to the quality of human lives. However, whether these technologies are actually bliss or a curse is still a question of debate as every new development increases the risk of misuse of such technologies. Some aspects of these developments also raise ethical questions in terms of their destructive capacity. However, the dual use quandary cannot dictate the entire research and development in biotechnology and genetic engineering as further research in healthcare and food security is indispensable.

    Many such studies that aim at finding new ways to curb diseases have been in news recently. For example, some of the recent research aims at reducing mosquito population to eradicate malaria and other diseases like dengue. About 3.4 billion people, almost half of the world's population, are at risk of malaria. In 2012, the estimated number of deaths due to malaria was 6,27,000. Advanced prevention and control measures have resulted in a remarkable reduction in malaria mortality rates by 42% globally since 2000 and by 49% in the African Region. However, people living in the underdeveloped countries are still the most vulnerable to malaria.1

    For a long time scientists are involved in research and development of new techniques based on genetic engineering that can be used against infectious diseases like malaria and dengue. Recently, a technology that enables altering of mosquito DNA to develop resistance for malaria parasite has been developed. This can be of significant help in controlling and eventually eradicating malaria. This new technology can also be used against a wide range of other species like herbicide-resistant weeds. The technique is known as Crispr, which is a system of molecules used to alter DNA of mosquitoes with exquisite accuracy to make mosquitoes resistant to malaria parasite.2

    On the other hand, few scientists have created sperm-less mosquitoes in an effort to curtail the spread of malaria. The technique of insect sterilization has been attempted by scientists in past also to control the tsetse fly, which carries sleeping sickness disease, by divulging them to radiation to make them sterile. However, during further research it has been found that radiation tends to leave Anopheles Gambiae male mosquitoes (world’s most efficient malaria vector) insubstantial in mating with their partners. So, scientists have now developed an alternative procedure to make male mosquitoes sterile without harming them.3 Gradually and eventually, such kind of technologies can be used in fighting against deadly diseases and saving lives, however their impact on the ecosystem has to be studied meticulously to avoid long term effect before it’s too late.

    The Crispr technique aims to fight against malaria in a different way. In order to control the mosquito population, scientists would conduct the following procedure. A package of genes including the protein, which makes the mosquitoes resistant to malaria parasites, would be inserted into the mosquitoes. According to media reports, “The package would also contain genes for Crispr molecules. These genetically engineered mosquitoes will be released then to mate with normal mosquitoes. The DNA will be passed from the parent to its offspring. The Crispr genes will then produce their molecules inside the mosquito’s cells to alter the cells. The Crispr molecules will also replace the other parent’s DNA transferred to the offspring with the resistance gene. The new mosquitoes would carry two copies of the malaria-resistance genes instead of one and would pass modified genes to their own offspring in future. From one generation to the next, Crispr can spread the resistance genes with outstanding speed. The technique seems to be an efficient one to fight against the deadly disease of malaria, however scientists believe that despite of being advantageous to humanity on some fronts, it may also lead to a broad range of unintended ecological harm and hence it needs a thorough public discussion”.4

    Amidst all such news reports of research and development activities related to introducing Genetically Modified (GM) insects to fight against diseases like malaria and dengue, Brazil has recently become the first country to permit the commercial release of the GM mosquito, OX513A to control dengue fever.  The British biotech firm Oxitec modified the DNA of the Aedes Aegypti mosquito to prevent it from spreading the deadly virus. The researchers expect them to multiply after the release, breed and predominate mosquito population, thus reducing cases of dangerous dengue disease. Thousands of British made genetically engineered mosquitoes were released by Brazilian researchers in Rio de Janeiro recently to control dengue fever.  Oxitec has established its new plant in the Brazilian city of Campinas, which is the first in the world to launch production of GM mosquitoes to target and prevent dengue.5

    India is also planning to incorporate and introduce the same kind of genetically engineered mosquitoes, which are sterile and unable to reproduce, to eradicate lethal malaria and chikungunya. Oxitec is planning to introduce its RIDL technology in India to help combat Aedes Aegypti, the mosquito vector that causes dengue and chikungunya. According to the recent media reports, “Oxitec would be developing GM mosquitoes and releasing them to control disease causing vectors (mosquitoes) in India. Oxitec is collaborating with Gangabishan Bhikulal Investment and Trading Limited (GBIT) to develop and produce the technology in India”. 6

    Advent of such methods is undoubtedly a boon for humanity. However, there is also a dilemma associated with such advancements since their destructive application is always a possibility. Dual-use dilemma is a major concern with reference to biotechnological research that is originally intended for human welfare. GM insects can be used as carriers in a biological warfare situation. Secondly, identification of such incidents as biological warfare is difficult since it could even be passed off a natural outbreak of the disease. Hence security of such research is the foremost challenge.

    The idea of using insects as carriers for biological warfare agents is not new. Many countries have been involved in research in this area known as Entomological Warfare (EW) which is “a specific type of biological warfare that uses insects in a direct attack or as vectors to deliver a biological agent, such as plague or cholera”.7 Dr. Klaus Reinhardt claims that Nazi scientists were involved in a secret research on malaria-infected mosquitoes for use during World War II. Reports suggest that “SS leader Heinrich Himmler arranged secret research to find out if the infected insects could be kept alive long enough to be used against the allies. In January 1942, a special laboratory at Dachau concentration camp was established with the official aim of finding new remedies against diseases transmitted by lice and other insects, as well as the typhoid that affected German troops severely. However the records kept by Dachau Entomological Institute revealed its scientists were also involved in research related to insect warfare. This research and development activity remained secret because Germany, along with the allied nations, had signed up to the 1925 Geneva protocol, which bans the use of biological and chemical weapons”.8 Similarly, it is known that Japan was involved in research and development activities preparing for insect warfare against China in World War II and also planned similar attacks against US troops and American people. During the Cold War, the US military planned a capability to produce 100 million mosquitoes infected of yellow-fever every month and analyzed vulnerable sites in the Soviet Union and its allies. The US also conducted various tests by secretly dropping the insects over American cities.9

    Even today it is possible that insect-based weapons can be used by the terrorists and their transportation is also relatively easy.10 Because of availability of highly advanced and sophisticated genetic engineering techniques, insects can be preferred to be used as biological weapon agents and may put forth an array of possible effects from serious infections, sickness to infertility in a target population. Differentiating and drawing clear lines between offensive and defensive research is very difficult. Also, the possibility of generating an offensive technology while developing defensive technology can also not be ruled out. The possibility of usage of genetically modified insects as a weapon cannot be ignored. All defensive technologies can be used for offensive purposes too. Therefore, sharing or transfer of such technologies or knowledge has to be monitored thoroughly. Undoubtedly, the latest research and development in the field of genetic engineering is proving to be highly beneficial. However, the probability of their misuse has to be given due attention.