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Biotech corporation withdraws application to release GM flies in Spain, but will certainly try again soon


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(NaturalNews) Environmental and civil society groups gained a victory in early August when British biotechnology company Oxitec withdrew its application to perform outdoor experiments using genetically modified (GM) olive flies in Spain. Nevertheless, the groups warn that with recent advances in genetic engineering (GE) technology, more efforts to modify the genomes of wild species are likely just around the corner.

The olive fly is one of the major pests of olive crops worldwide. Oxitec's GM olive fly carries a "female-killing" gene that causes the death of female offspring. The company hopes to eventually release the GM fly throughout the world, hypothetically causing a crash in the numbers of the agricultural pest. Company literature does not mention the potential ecological consequences of deliberately engineering extinction, even of a pest.

Authorities reject reckless plans

Civil society had opposed Oxitec's plans to test the GM olive flies in Spain, in part because the flies were engineered from non-native Greek and Israeli varieties. The European Union typically prohibits the release of any non-native agricultural pest due to concerns that undesirable traits such as pesticide resistance could spread to native strains. Indeed, the United Kingdom recently refused an Oxitec release of GM moths for this reason.

"Use of non-native strains is reckless because Oxitec's GM pests are not sterile and the non-native strain of GM males will survive and breed with wild flies for many generations," said Dr. Helen Wallace, Director of GeneWatch UK. "It is very risky to introduce non-native strains of pests into a new country. Harmful traits such as pesticide resistance would be impossible to eradicate once they spread through the wild population."

After receiving word that its application would not be approved, Oxitec withdrew the application. It was the second time in two years that Oxitec had withdrawn its application to test GM olive flies in Spain.

Next threat just around the corner?

In a press release hailing the victory, the group Testbiotech warned that new biotech threats are emerging faster than ever.

"We would like to congratulate the farmers and environmentalists in Spain on this important and successful outcome," said Cristoph Then of Testbiotech. "Nevertheless, we have to assume that this will not remain the last attempt at releasing such organisms. The next generation of genetically engineered organisms is already in the laboratories. Looking at scientific publications it is easy to believe there will soon be a surge in the release of organisms that cannot be controlled."

In 2014, an editorial in the journal Science warned of the potential ecological consequences of GE technologies known as "gene drives." Gene drives are genetic techniques that allow the rapid modification of the genomes of not just individual organisms, but of entire populations or species. Many in the scientific community criticized that editorial as unnecessarily alarmist, noting that gene drive technology did not yet exist.

Just a year later, that technology has arrived, according to an August 4 editorial in the journal Nature. Breakthroughs in precision gene editing through a technique known as CRISPR now allow researchers to insert a specific modification into both chromosomes of an organism's genome. This guarantees that the organism will pass on the trait to the genes of its offspring, and it makes that trait spread through a population much more rapidly.

If this technique is applied to wild animals such as insects, it could have effects on the ecosystems across the planet.

"Engineering a lab animal or agricultural crop is one thing," the Nature editorial reads. "Wielding the power to alter an entire wild population is quite another."

With this threat in mind, Testbiotech has called for strict national and international bans on the release of any GE organism that has the potential to escape into the wild.

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