Make Way for Life-Saving Science on Your Farm [opinion]

Make Way for Life-Saving Science on Your Farm [opinion]

Illustration of CRISPR-Cas9

Cas9 seeks out certain sections of DNA chains to “clip out” undesirable traits, and in some cases, add in new desirable attributes. Can this technology save crops from deadly pests and diseases? Scientists are seeking to find out.
Illustration courtesy of UC Berkeley

There aren’t many topics that stir the pot more among the masses than genetic engineering (GE). Opinions on either side of the table can become quite heated, especially when talking about employing the modern science in food crops for the purpose of enhancing their ability to increase yield and fight off disease more effectively. The debate can become just as embroiled even when it comes to genetically altering pests that can take food off tables or ones that can take human lives.

Case in point, researchers at Cornell University’s Agricultural Experiment Station are eager to pull the trigger on a unique experiment involving a controlled release of genetically engineered, “self-limiting” diamondback moth (DBM) in the research center’s cabbage field. As of this posting, they were still awaiting the official go-ahead from USDA.


Like Moths to a Flame

Can a fight-fire-with-fire approach put an end to an age-old DBM plague? Growers can only hope and wait for now. The miniature menace continues to be a perennial problem for cole crop growers around the globe.

The novel experiment could present a solution that would eliminate growing concern over pesticide resistance incidence for the destructive DBM, offering growers a biological control alternative.

For the last two years, Cornell scientists have been working with British-based biotech company Oxitec and testing its self-limiting gene capabilities on DBM in a protected environment. Now, the next phase of the study is ready to take off — literally — out in the open. Of course, this aspect is what has local environmental groups in Upstate New York nervous about the possible spread of the sterile DBM and potential impacts beyond the demonstration plot. But is there cause for worry?

Genetically Speaking

According to Oxitec, its technology is based on advanced genetics that involve the insertion of a self-limiting gene into mosquitoes. “The gene is passed onto the insect’s offspring, so when male Oxitec engineered mosquitoes are released into the wild and mate with wild females, their offspring inherit the self-limiting trait. The resulting offspring will die before reaching adulthood, and the local mosquito population will decline.”

Sounds like a pretty slick solution to suppress deadly disease-carrying bloodsuckers (fine by me). In fact, Oxitec is currently working on a field trial with the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District to release a GE mosquito in an effort to quell populations, thus limiting the hosts of illnesses such as Zika virus, dengue fever, and West Nile.

I find it encouraging the same biotechnology that could potentially save lots of lives is being considered to save lots of crops, too. This is not science fiction, folks. Researchers also are vetting RNAi innovation to save citrus and even newer gene-editing technology (CRISPR/Cas9) for possible control of spotted wing drosophila and yes, DBM.

While nature always finds a way to adapt, science continues to find other ways to cope. Lucky for us, that’s the case. Open minds are needed to open doors. There should be no debating that.