Back in the 1950s, two American scientists came up with a revolutionary idea to eliminate a longstanding scourge of livestock farming.
A parasite known as screwworm was devastating herds in the American south, disrupting food supplies and costing hundreds of millions of dollars in annual losses.
Screwworms are the larval stage of the blowfly, and are able to bore through live flesh – killing farm animals within 10 days of infection.
Raymond Bushland and Edward Knipling broke the screwworm’s life cycle without using toxic insecticides. They bred large numbers of blowflies, sterilised them with X-rays and released them into the wild. Here, the sterile males mated with native females to produce sterile offspring.
Repeated releases caused populations to crash, and over two subsequent decades, the US brought the problem under control.
A British biotech company called Oxitec is now pioneering a novel twist on this idea, known as the sterile insect technique (SIT). But the firm has swapped irradiation for the more precise and cost-effective toolkit of genetic modification.
Oxitec has developed a transgenic strain of the Aedes aegypti mosquito which transmits the virus responsible for dengue fever in its bite.
But Oxitec’s plans offer a striking vision of the future ways that genetically modified animals could help tackle public health problems or offer new options to industry – including food production.
The company is also targeting agricultural pests, including the olive fly – the biggest threat to olive production worldwide.
“The core technology can be used in any insect really, as long as it employs sexual reproduction,” says Mr Parry.
Read full, original article: Is the world ready for GM animals?