Scientists Create GMO Olive Flies To Protect Spain’s Olives, But Are They Safe?

By Philip Ross on October 1, 2013 11:51 AM EDT

olive fly
The olive fruit fly is found throughout the Mediterranean and in South Africa. Its larvae feed on the fruit of olive trees, and are considered a serious nuisance in the olive farming industry. (Photo: Creative Commons)

In a bid to rid Spain's olive trees of a pesky little nuisance called the olive fly, scientists in the UK have genetically modified male olive flies to kill their own offspring. British biotech company Oxitec, which has already released transgenic mosquitoes in Brazil to combat Dengue Fever, plans to release the GMO olive flies into the environment in Spain, pending approval from the country's National Biosafety Commission. The flies would be the first ever genetically engineered bugs to be deployed in the European Union, German research group Testbiotech reports.

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Spain is the world's largest olive producer, accounting for roughly 45 percent of all olive oil production. The country's 300 million olive trees span nearly five million acres. One of the biggest detriments to Spain's olive industry is the olive fly, a tiny fly that lays its eggs in the olive and whose larvae then devour the fruit, greatly affecting a farmer's yield. According to New Scientist, olive fly larvae destroy 15 to 30 percent of Spain's olive crops each year.

Oxitec's designer male olive fly was manipulated with synthetic DNA, a combination of bacteria, viruses, maritime organisms and other insects, according to Testbiotech. The male fly carries a lethal gene that kills female offspring during the larval stage. Male flies survive and inherit the deadly gene, but eventually they run out of female mates, leading to the species' collapse.

When Oxitec tested its GMO fly in a controlled experiment, the olive fly population crashed in about 10 weeks, Mashable reports. In order to see if the technique will work similarly in the environment, the biotech company plans to test the flies on six olive trees in the Terragona province. They'll cover the trees in mesh netting to keep the flies from escaping and possibly spreading elsewhere.

Advocates of the GMO olive fly tout its benefits and say it's a much better alternative to pesticides. "The new program is less about 'does this work?', and more about the first operational roll-out of this technology," Luke Alphey, co-founder of Oxitec, told New Scientist.

But not everyone is so enthusiastic about the GMO flies. Red flags have gone up as some people note that there are still too many questions left unanswered. Will the flies spread? Will the insects simply evolve to fight the lethal gene, and eventually reinvade treated areas? These are some of the concerns raised by opponents of Oxitec's modified flies like Gene Watch, a nonprofit biotech watchdog located in the UK.

"Amongst other things, the trials imply risks for the olive farmers," Dr. Christoph Then, a biotech engineer and veterinary surgeon, said. "If the genetically engineered flies escape, the harvest in the regions concerned would become nonmarketable. Genetically engineered larvae living inside the olives are not allowed for food consumption in the EU."

This isn't the first time Oxitec has released GMO bugs into the environment. According to the Huffington Post, in 2010, Oxitec released 3 million GMO male mosquitoes in the Cayman Islands, and within a year, cut the population of Dengue mosquitoes by 80 percent.

Similar applications of mutant mosquitoes in Brazil worked well also. The company reported a 96 percent suppression of Dengue mosquito populations in areas of Brazil where the tests took place.

Read more from iScience Times:

Mosquito 'Invisibility Cloak:' Scientists Create Scent To Deter Disease-Carrying Bloodsuckers From Preying On Humans

Mega Mosquitoes: Why 'Gallinipper' Bites Feel 'Like Getting Stabbed' [VIDEO]

Pests Mutate to Feed on Genetically Modified Crops

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