Australia / NZ

Oxitec's Australian Medfly Trials Proceed

Despite delays, British Biotech Company Oxitec is still confident that their genetically modified strain of olive flies will reach further trial stages, but there's a long way to go before growers can access these insects to their advantage.

Oxitec
Jan. 3, 2017
By Mary Hernandez
Oxitec

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Despite with­draw­ing their appli­ca­tion to con­duct a net­tled trial cage study of the Olive fly in Spain in 2014, English Biotech Company Oxitec says that the OX3097D strain of pop­u­la­tion sup­press­ing, genet­i­cally-mod­i­fied olive flies should not be counted out just yet.

The pop­u­la­tion con­trol pro­gram works by releas­ing spe­cially marked male olive flies into the wild. These flies have been ren­dered ster­ile due to a “self-lim­it­ing.” These males breed with female flies in the wild, cre­at­ing a pop­u­la­tion that grad­u­ally decreases due to an inabil­ity to repro­duce or pro­duce healthy off­spring.

In 2014, Olive Oil Times cov­ered Oxitec’s ini­tial appli­ca­tion, reveal­ing that the com­pany still hoped that the first field trial of the OX3097D olive fly would go ahead in Catalonia, despite having with­drawn their appli­ca­tion for a netted trial.

When reached for an update, Oxitec explained that in 2015, a review of all prod­uct can­di­dates was under­taken regard­ing the olive fly pest sup­pres­sion pro­gram, and it was deter­mined that refo­cus­ing on new promis­ing can­di­date strains would ulti­mately pro­vide olive pro­duc­ers with the best solu­tion the com­pany could offer. Oxitec said it intends to submit another appli­ca­tion in the future as new prod­uct can­di­dates are devel­oped.

The OX3097D strain has already under­gone exten­sive test­ing regard­ing its envi­ron­men­tal health and safety for ani­mals and humans, with no areas of con­cern iden­ti­fied, the com­pany said. As the bio­log­i­cal and non-toxic sup­pres­sion pro­gram is spe­cific to the species of olive flies in ques­tion, it also has no impact on other useful insect life and is harm­less if con­sumed.

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The pop­u­la­tion con­trol­ling effect of the pro­gram is also lim­ited to flies in a spe­cific geo­graph­i­cal area, as olive flies do not travel great dis­tances in their life­times. This makes it a highly con­trol­lable, irra­di­a­tion free and an effec­tive way of reduc­ing the pop­u­la­tion of olive flies in a spe­cific olive grove or farm.

In order for the of the OX3097D strain of olive fly to reach a com­mer­cial stage, it would still need to be stud­ied in an enclo­sure and under strictly reg­u­lated con­di­tions. Conducting research trials in this way is sig­nif­i­cantly expen­sive and can only occur in a very narrow time frame due to the repro­duc­tive life cycle of the wild olive fly.

In the mean­time, Oxitec is pro­ceed­ing with the trial of another one of its mod­i­fied insects, the Mediterranean fruit fly, or Medfly. This self-lim­it­ing strain of the fly that is a known agri­cul­tural pest uses the same tech­nol­ogy used in the OX3097D. It is ready to be tri­aled in the wild in Western Australia and, should the trial prove suc­cess­ful, the next step will be gain­ing the approval of Australia’s Office of the Gene Technology Regulator.

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It also seems that cost and public per­cep­tion of genet­i­cally mod­i­fied insects might have a part to play in the even­tual suc­cess of the Oxitec olive fly as sim­i­lar efforts in the USA and Asia have been vetoed for these rea­sons, but only time will tell.