Uruguay wants to use gene drives to eradicate devastating screwworms

Abdullahi Tsanni,  MIT Technology Review,  2024.

On a warm, sunny day in Montevideo, Uruguay, the air is smogless and crisp. Inside a highly secured facility at the National Institute of Agricultural Research (INIA) are a sophisticated gene gun, giant microscopes, and tens of thousands of gene-edited flies, their bright blue wings fluttering against the walls of their small, white, netted cages. These flies—shown to me on video by an INIA veterinarian, Alejo Menchaca—are a new weapon that may soon be unleashed against an enemy that kills cattle and costs the livestock industry millions of dollars every year: the New World screwworm, a parasite common in parts of South America and the Caribbean.

When a female screwworm fly attacks cattle, it lays eggs, which hatch and turn into worm-like larvae that screw down into the host animal, feeding on flesh along their way and damaging the animal’s skin. Left untreated, the animals eventually die in excruciating agony.

But Menchaca and colleagues have a plan. Using the genome-editing system CRISPR, they’ve developed what’s known as a gene drive, a type of genetic element that manipulates the reproductive process to spread farther and faster than an ordinary gene. They are about to move into the next stage of caged trials in the lab, with a view to eventually using the genetic tool to decimate the screwworm fly population. In collaboration with Institut Pasteur de Montevideo, they have received a $450,000 grant from the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) for the research.

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