Some high-tech insect experiments soon may be flitting out of the laboratory: Mosquitoes genetically modified to eliminate malaria. Silkworms engineered to produce bulletproof vests. Bollworm moths designed to self-destruct before they can wipe out cotton crops.
Genetically engineered insects hold the promise of benefiting millions, eradicating diseases and plagues that cause famine in the developing world.
But despite such good intentions, many scientists are alarmed that few safeguards exist to keep unintended consequences from harming humans or the environment.
Fast-producing insects anchor food chains around the globe. Yet the impact that genetically engineered bugs could have on ecosystems is only now being explored, even as researchers push to release biotech insect experiments into the wild.
Such questions could be vitally important, particularly since many researchers are engineering insects designed to change the genetic makeup of their very species.
Unlike with biotech crops or livestock, which are at least designed to be controlled, the goal of much of this insect research is to introduce genetically engineered traits into natural insect populations; for example, rendering Tse Tse flies incapable of carrying deadly sleeping sickness, a disease that afflicts millions in Africa.
No biotech insect experiment has been conducted outside a laboratory yet, but a few projects are getting close, a prospect that prompted the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology, in a report being released Thursday, to call on the federal government to adopt strict regulations.
"Usually, biotechnology seems to move more quickly than the regulations," said Michael Fernandez, Pew's science director. "But in this case, we have the time."
No U.S. law specifically addresses biotech bugs. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's written policy on engineered insects asserts regulatory authority only over "plant pests," requiring that any outdoor experiment get prior federal approval.
Bob Rose, a USDA scientist, said federal agencies can and probably will assert authority over many of these projects, with some creative categorizing. For instance, Rose said the USDA has authority to regulate insects that cause disease in animals. Mosquitoes are livestock pests and Rose said genetically engineered malaria fighters could be brought under USDA's authority in that way.
Rose also says biotech insect research is still in its infancy. Still, he concedes more explicit regulations as called for by Pew would eliminate many of the regulatory loopholes being exploited by biotech companies.
For example, no regulator stepped in to monitor the Glofish, a fluorescent zebra fish recently put on the market, because no federal agency was specifically tasked with overseeing biotech house pets.
Open air-tests expected
The USDA has received only one application for an open air-test of an engineered insect, the cotton-destroying pink bollworm moth in Arizona, which could occur this year.
Other insect projects developing in mostly unregulated territory include industrial products, like the attempt to make silkworms mass-produce spider silk. By weight it is stronger than steel and tougher than the artificial fibers now used in body armor worn by troops in Iraq and elsewhere.
Still other researchers are engineering honeybees to be more disease-resistant, and medflys to be less damaging to crops.
Anthony James at the University of California, Irvine, is trying to synthesize a gene that boosts the mosquito's immune system, giving it the means to fight off the malaria parasite.
Malaria afflicts between 300 million and 500 million people each year, killing more than 3 million annually. Simultaneous publication of the genomes of the mosquito and malaria parasite in 2002 has spurred development in James' once-obscure field.
"It shaved years off my research," he said.
While he doesn't think engineered mosquitoes are a silver bullet, James predicts they will be important, along with drugs and vaccines, in the fight against malaria. He hopes his research won't be slowed by the concerns being raised in the Pew report and elsewhere.
Thomas Miller at the University of California, Riverside, also believes in biotech insects, but for reasons that have as much to do with farmers' profits as healthy crops.
With $1 million in grants from the California cotton industry, Miller is working to genetically modify the crop-killing pink bollworm to be sexually active but sterile. The idea is that the biotech bugs would mate in the wild, passing on a lethal gene instead of child-creating genes to the offspring.
The test in Arizona would not involve the lethal gene yet, instead, scientists plan to release thousands of bollworms with genetic markers to determine just what it takes to overwhelm natural reproduction among wild bollworms.
For his part, Miller concedes that more research needs to be done on environmental impact before biotech insects can be widely released.
"I have no idea," he said, "what they're going to do out in the wild."