Diamondback moths may be a mere half-inch in length, but their voracious appetite for Brussels sprouts, kale and cauliflower make them a major pain for farmers. This week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture approved a potential solution: moths genetically engineered to contain a special gene that makes them gradually die off. A field trial slated to take place in a small area of upstate New York will become the first wild release of an insect modified using genetic engineering in the US.
The moths have been engineered by the British biotech firm Oxitec, the same company that last year caused a stir with its plans to release genetically modified, Zika-fighting mosquitoes in the Florida Keys. The diamond back moths take a similar approach to the mosquitoes, modifying male mosquitoes to limit the population over time by passing on a gene to offspring when it mates with wild females that causes female moths to die before they reach maturity.
The technique is a riff on an approach used to manage agricultural pests since the 1950s, known as “sterile insect technique.” Using radiation, scientists made insects like the screwworm unable to produce viable offspring. By 1982, screwworm was eradicated from the US using this alternative to pesticides. In “Silent Spring” Rachel Carson suggested this approach was the solution to the dangers of harmful pesticides agricultural producers required to protect their crops. The problem was that it did not work on every insect—in many cases, it simply left irradiated insects too weak to compete for mates with their healthier kin.
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