Can genetic biocontrol help solve other global problems?
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The genetic biocontrol known as the Sterile Insect Technique, based on irradiation, has been used safely across the globe for decades to control agricultural pests. For example, in Central America sterile New World Screwworm flies are released to prevent the northern migration of these important livestock pests from South America into Mexico, Central America, and the Southern US. Mass reared radiation-sterilized male Mediterranean Fruit Flies are or have been used to control this major pest of citrus and other fruits in countries including Argentina, Mexico, Portugal, Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Spain, South Africa, and the USA.
Genetic engineering also is being applied to control of agricultural pests such as Mediterranean Fruit Fly and Fall Armyworm. Oxitec’s FriendlyTM technology for Fall Armyworm has been approved by the Brazilian biosafety agency.
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Genetic biocontrol approaches are being considered to address several global problems that, despite our best efforts, have proven difficult to solve by other available means. By modifying or reducing the numbers of arthropod vectors, they could contribute to preventing transmission of infectious diseases causing illness and death to millions of people worldwide. For agriculture, similar technologies could help to reduce crop loss caused by insect pests, recently estimated to cost the world over $70 billion per year annually. For conservation, they have been proposed as a method for controlling invasive species that likewise cause enormous economic losses and threaten biodiversity.
Genetic biocontrol can be used in combination with other methods, offering a new chance to bring these global challenges under control.
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Chemical pesticides are very commonly used for pest control in agriculture, although the degree of dependence varies by country. This includes insecticides for insect pests, herbicides for weeds, and fungicides for plant pathogens. Various types of good farming practices, such as crop rotation and integrated pest management programs, offer approaches intended to reduce pesticide dependence. Organic production employs many of the same concepts but avoids use of synthetic pesticides entirely. Classical biocontrol methods involving dissemination of natural enemies have demonstrated promise for reducing damage by invasive insect pests. Sterile Insect Technique, which employs dissemination of radiation-sterilized pest insects to reduce productive mating and thereby diminish pest population size, has been deployed against several agricultural pests, perhaps most widely for screw worm and Mediterranean fruit fly. Additionally, there has been increasing interest in bioengineered crops, such as those containing a gene from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis that makes them insect resistant.
Nonetheless, the Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that between 20 to 40 percent of global crop production is lost to pests annually. Extensive exposure to synthetic and organic pesticides has raised concerns about their adverse effects upon the environment and human health, and fosters the emergence of resistance that necessitates increased usage and ongoing development of new alternatives. Global food insecurity is an ongoing challenge, which climate change may only exacerbate.
For more information:
https://www.epa.gov/safepestcontrol/integrated-pest-management-ipm-principles; https://www.fao.org/news/story/en/item/1187738/icode/; https://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/farm-practices-management/crop-livestock-practices/pest-management.aspx#:~:text=U.S.%20farmers%20employ%20a%20range,apply%20organic%20and%20synthetic%20pesticides; https://www.fao.org/state-of-food-security-nutrition
Invasive alien species are non-native animals, plants or other organisms that have been accidentally or purposely introduced in areas outside their natural range, become established in these new areas, and cause damage to native biodiversity resulting in substantial socio-economic costs. The direct impact of alien invasive species is estimated to cost the global economy billions of dollars annually.
Accidental introductions can result from international trade and transportation. The best method to control the damage done by invasive alien species is considered to be prevention through early detection and rapid response to eradicate the new species before it can become locally established. If that is not possible, control and management options include biological control using natural enemies of the invasive species, chemical control using pesticides and toxicants, and various types of mechanical or physical control to make the environment less hospitable to the new species. Educational efforts to increase awareness and use of practices aimed at preventing the spread of the invasive species also may be helpful. Nevertheless, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature warns that the rate of new introductions is increasing and their impacts on food security, health and biodiversity may be compounded by climate change.
For more information:
https://www.invasivespeciesinfo.gov/subject/control-mechanisms#:~:text=Chemical%20control%20includes%20the%20use,crops%2C%20changing%20planting%20dates); https://www.iucn.org/resources/issues-briefs/invasive-alien-species-and-sustainable-development; https://www.geneticbiocontrol.org/
Due to their isolation from the mainland, islands often harbor a high proportion of specialized native plants and animals that contribute to the world’s biodiversity. Introduced invasive species, such as rats and feral cats, pose a serious threat to fragile island ecosystems and wildlife, especially birds. It has been estimated that over the past 500 years, invasive alien species have contributed to nearly half of global bird extinctions.
Genetic biocontrol methods are under consideration for certain vertebrate pests that present particularly difficult ecological and economic challenges on islands. For example, removal of invasive rodents from islands has proven to be a highly impactful conservation intervention. However, currently effective methods for doing so are limited largely to use of rodenticides, which have other ethical, ecological, social, and financial constraints. Genetic biocontrol methods that could suppress the island rodent population by reducing reproductive capacity have been proposed as a possible alternative that would be more humane and sustainable. Research on genetic biocontrol of rodents and other island pest vertebrates is underway but still at an early stage.
Introduced pathogens also present a well-recognized risk to island biodiversity. Avian malaria is an introduced disease known to threaten native birdlife in Hawaii. Since this pathogen is transmitted by mosquitoes, it may be susceptible to similar genetic biocontrol methods being developed for vector-borne human diseases.
For more information: https://www.cbd.int/island/invasive.shtml; https://www.aphis.usda.gov/aphis/maps/sa_wildlife_services/ws-managing-invasive-species; https://www.geneticbiocontrol.org/; https://portals.iucn.org/library/efiles/documents/2019-012-En.pdf; https://royalsociety.org.nz/assets/Uploads/Gene-editing-in-pest-control-technical-paper.pdf; https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fagro.2021.806569/full