Gene genie

In my opinion the English language is currently diffy two words. First, the fear that having checked into your hotel room you will pull back the shower curtain in the bathroom – extended for hygiene purposes – and discover a dead body in the bath, courtesy of some horrific Coen Brothers-like murder.

The second missing word describes that mixture of terror and absolute certainty that when you reach into the banana box in Sainsbury’s, you will disturb the massive tarantula that has hitched a lift from Honduras.

I’m not alone in these thoughts, or at least the last one. Sort of. The government announced today that, remarkably, the UK’s National Bee Unit (no, me neither) has for some time been expecting the arrival of Vespa Velutina or Asian Hornet, from pot plants, cut flowers or fruit (I knew the stuff wasn’t good for you). Well, the scourge of the bumblebee (pictured) has finally arrived and has been spotted for the first time ever in the UK in Tetbury, Gloucestershire.

Nicola Spence, Defra’s Deputy Director for Plant and Bee Health, said: “we have been anticipating the arrival of the Asian hornet for some years and have a well-established protocol in place to eradicate them and control any potential spread”. The government swooped into action like a plague of clichés, established a three-mile surveillance zone around Tetbury and deployed bee inspectors armed with infrared cameras. Nest disposal experts have been put on immediate notice to move.

The plan to destroy any nests and “snuff out the invasion” echoes another debate raging in biodiversity circles at the moment. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has just invested $75 million in a scheme to exterminate mosquitoes. It raises interesting ethical questions about man’s right to eliminate other species, no matter how much harm they may cause.

Malaria kills 400,000 people, mostly children, every year and is only one of many nasty diseases carried by mosquitoes. So far, the most invasive technique genetic engineers have come up with is to try to render the males of one species of mosquito sterile. But this has only been tested in Brazil; a limited area in global terms.

The new technique is called a ‘gene drive’. Most genes have a 50% chance of being passed onto offspring. A gene drive (or gene bomb, as it is sometimes called) will aggressively target the DNA of the host to increase those odds. Stop the females of the species from reproducing and eventually the entire population will die.

It is a controversial proposal and even Bill Gates admits there’s no regulatory framework to oversee the method. Aside from the ethics of humanity’s right to kill off another species, many worry that the impact on a fragile and complex ecological system is too unpredictable. Mosquitoes are nasty, but they are also food for other animals.

And what about the consideration that the mosquito is only the route through which any disease is passed, rather than the direct cause of any illness? The unintended consequences of wiping out an entire species could outweigh the possible benefit of eradicating disease, especially if such an outcome was not certain.

Any decision to take such drastic action will require concerted international engagement and agreement; tricky at the best of times. And it is only a short biological hop from a gene drive to eradicate disease, to a biological weapon. So don’t expect any bio-tech programmes to roll out across international borders any time soon.

But that won’t stop you wanting to wipe out the lot of them the next time you hear the ‘ziiiiiiiii’ and feel the bite. Just be thankful it wasn’t an Asian Hornet.

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