Evolution takes thousands to millions of years to run its course, but University of Minnesota scientists have created a way to fast-forward this process within a year. A team led by biochemist Dr Mike Smanski has generated so-called “speciation events” in fruit flies, with speculation this can be extended to other insects such as mosquitoes.
The speciation results in genetically modified organisms (GMOs) capable of reproducing with each other.
Gaining engineering control over speciation will impact our ability to control pests that spread disease
Dr Mike Smanski
However, any sex with unmodified insects will result in offspring unable to survive.
This cutting-edge research provides the foundations for plans to prevent genetically modified organisms from reproducing with wild organisms.
And the scientists are now working on ways they can use the technology to lower the number of disease-carrying mosquitoes.
In countries were diseases like malaria and Zika are rife, controlling mosquito populations by introducing mutated inspects could be critical.
This work is particularly focused on a species of mosquito known as Aedes aegypti, which can spread viral infections such as Zika, dengue and chikungunya.
Dr Smanski said: ”Speciation is a fundamental process that drives how life evolves on this planet.
“Gaining engineering control over speciation will impact our ability to control pests that spread disease, harm crops or degrade the environment.
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“This is one of several new approaches to pest control using modern genome-editing tools to essentially convert the pest organism into the pesticide.
“Any time our engineered flies attempt to reproduce with wild flies, there are no offspring.
“This allows it to function like a genetically-encoded birth control for pest organisms.”
This Engineered Genetic Incompatibility (EGI) approach incorporates the highly-controversial CRISPR technique.
CRISPR can introduce seemingly-harmless mutations into DNA encoding proteins.
Researchers then introduce a gene-activator that searches for the original DNA sequence.
Then, when the engineered insect mates with a wild strain, the offspring will inherit a copy of the original sequence from their wild parent and a copy of the gene-activator from their engineered parent.
This causes over-activation of the wild gene copy, resulting in impotent offspring.
Nathan Feltman, a Smanski Lab graduate student and study co-author, said: “EGI will prove to be an invaluable tool for the safe use of GMOs.
“One of the risks of GMOs is the spread of transgenic material into wild populations.
“However, any genetic components contained within an engineered species are trapped within that species.”
The study builds on the team’s previous work in yeast, which study co-author Siba Das believes marks a paradigm shift in how scientists look at engineering speciation events and how it can be fine-tuned for desired applications.
Dr Maciej Maselko, study co-author, said: ”Engineering speciation events has been a long-standing biotech goal and we are very excited to begin applying this method to major challenges in human and environmental health.”
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