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Cleantech
These ‘Friendly’ Insects Could Make Our Most Deadly, Destructive Pests Drop Like Flies

Oxitec’s Friendly™ technology has created self-limiting versions of some of our most deadly and destructive insect pests — a safe, targeted solution that has the potential to protect human populations, food crops and livelihoods globally.

Tiny as they are, mosquitos stand as the world's deadliest animal — responsible for killing over a million people per year. There are 3,000 different species of mosquitoes, with three populations — Anopheles, Culex and Aedes — primarily responsible for the transmission of diseases deadly to humans.

Scientists have been working for years to find solutions that can protect people from the devastating diseases carried by mosquitos — and now one company might have the answer.

Meet Oxitec, formed in 2002 with the help of Oxford University Innovation. The biotech firm aims to improve the lives and livelihoods of people around the world by greatly reducing the threats posed by insects to human health and the global food supply.

“Our team is working around the clock to control mosquito species that transmit deadly diseases around the world. It’s no small task, but our team is passionate about providing biological solutions for the world’s deadliest animal, the mosquito.” Nathan Rose, Head of Regulatory Affairs at Oxitec, told Sustainable Brands™.

Global health

Oxitec’s most recent project began in the Florida Keys in April last year, after years of residential pushback and regulatory complications. They hope to control the Aedes aegypti mosquito — a population not native to the US, but an invasive species carrying and spreading harmful diseases such as dengue, Zika, yellow fever and chikungunya.

“Aedes aegypti live near and prefer to feed on people, therefore are more likely to spread these viruses than other types of mosquitoes. In recent years, the Florida Keys have seen locally transmitted cases of dengue and travel-related cases of Zika,” Rose explained.

Oxitec’s technology has created Friendly™ male mosquitos that contain a self-limiting gene. When these Friendly males mate with female mosquitos in the wild, the gene is passed on to their offspring. This self-limiting gene then prevents female offspring from surviving into adulthood, resulting in a reduction in the mosquito population.

Oxitec’s Friendly male mosquitoes are engineered using precise genetic tools; they are just like their wild relatives — but with the addition of two extra genes that create the non-biting, self-limiting and non-persistent characteristics of the Friendly male mosquito.

“We call this method ’self-limiting,’ because the released insects and the self-limiting gene that they pass on disappear from the environment,” says Meredith Fensom, Head of Global Public Affairs at Oxitec. “This method can be applied to all kinds of insect pests — from the mosquitoes that transmit such diseases as dengue and Zika, to moth caterpillars that destroy maize fields.”

Oxitec had to seek US EPA approval to demonstrate this safe, environmentally sustainable technology in the United States. Following the EPA’s approval, the state of Florida additionally approved the project. Fensom described the recent Florida Keys project as a huge breakthrough for Oxitec.

“Together, Oxitec and the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District carried out extensive public engagement and educational events throughout the Keys,” she said. “We engage with local communities and provide answers to questions before any project, and this engagement continues during and after projects we run.”

The safety and efficacy of Oxitec’s insects is demonstrated by more than 100 peer-reviewed publications about the technology, available on the company’s website. These publications detail the genes and proteins used in all of Oxitec’s insects, their safety profile, and their deployment in many locations worldwide.

Oxitec has controlled the Aedes aegypti population before, completing a pilot in Brazil in 2019. This project, in partnership with the municipal vector control authorities in the city of Indaiatuba, demonstrated the strain’s effectiveness of Friendly Aedes aegypti males in suppressing those mosquitos in four densely populated urban communities across the city (relative to an untreated site): These Friendly males achieved an average of 91 percent peak suppression across the four areas.

“We received full biosafety commercial approval in 2020 from the Brazilian government’s biosafety authority and CTNBio, so we are now able to make our just-add-water solution available for delivery directly to customers’ doorsteps starting in the State of São Paulo,” Fensom explained.

“We are now entering the fight against malaria, targeting Anopheles stephensi and Anopheles albimanus — two malaria-transmitting mosquitoes that represent a threat to billions of people globally,” Rose explained. “Current tools and treatments are insufficient to achieve malaria prevention in many countries, and malaria vectors and parasites are developing resistance to insecticides and antimalarial drugs.”

Food security

Speaking of resistance, the company envisions a world free from burdens caused not only by insects transmitting diseases, but also destroying crops — Oxitec’s Friendly technology also breeds insects designed to be targeted, safe and sustainable systems for protecting crops against some the world’s most damaging pests. The technology provides precision-based pest suppression that is safe for both humans and the broader environment — allowing farmers to effectively control crop-destroying pests without trading effectiveness for sustainability.

As farmers around the world have become more and more dependent on insecticides, the insects’ growing resistance and the chemicals’ non-targeted nature — along with growing consumer pressure to reduce insecticide use on food crops — has seen many farmers scrambling for less harmful solutions. The farm-Friendly™ versions of common farm pests such as diamondback moths and olive flies are designed only to target the pests in question — eliminating the need for toxic chemicals and preserving the health of the soil, pollinators and the overall ecosystem.

Gene-targeting capabilities could someday have frightening implications (see the latest Bond film); but for now, Oxitec is using this power for good — and is poised to be a key player in ensuring the health of our global population and food supply.

“We believe that we can achieve elimination of vector-borne diseases in our lifetimes, and that we can effectively and sustainably control crop pests in the face of growing demand for agricultural productivity and food security,” Fensom said.

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