CRISPR could eradicate horrific parasite that’s killing cattle

Kristin Houser,  Freethink,  2024.

Uruguay is developing a CRISPR gene drive to eradicate the New World screwworm, a parasitic fly that kills cattle in a painful, grisly fashion. Releasing it into the wild would have risks, but if it works, it could help rid South America of this horrific agricultural pest. The screwworm fly lays its eggs on living creatures — often livestock — and once they hatch, the larvae eat into the animal’s flesh for about a week, before emerging from the tunnel they created and flying away.

“We know that it’s horrendously painful, because people get affected by this, and the standard of treatment is you give them morphine immediately so that surgeons can cut the things out — because it’s just that painful; it’s unbelievably agonizing,” Kevin Esvelt, a biologist at the MIT Media Lab, told the 80,000 Hours podcast in 2023. Aside from being painful, screwworm infestations of livestock are incredibly costly. In the 1950s, the US meat and dairy industries were losing an estimated $200 million per year to the pests — that’d be about $2.3 billion today. Screwworms are no longer a problem for American farmers thanks to the USDA. In 1955, it set out to eradicate the screwworm in the US by irradiating the insects’ larvae, which made adults sterile. Infertile males could then be released into infested areas to mate with females, which wouldn’t produce any offspring.

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