Researchers from West Australia are relying on genetically modified fruit flies to solve pest problems in the region.

Mediterranean fruit flies (Ceratitis capitata) is causing significant dilemma among households and orchards in West Australia. Also known as Medfly, these pests feed on more than 250 kinds of fruits such as apricots, peaches, citrus, apples, nectarines, pears and mangoes.

The damage occurs in fruits when the female fly "sting" on it during the process of egg-laying. The fruits then become susceptible to decomposition and subsequent infection.

As per estimates, the damage in West Australian crops every year due to fruit flies is about $200 million.

The Department of Agriculture and Food Western Australia (DAFWA) has been searching for a strong solution to address the problem. The agency has banned the use of an insecticide called fenthion but its quest for alternative methods has not ceased.

Now, DAFWA has partnered with Oxitec, a technology firm based in the UK, to see the effectiveness of an innovative strategy that involves the use of genetically modified organisms (GMO).

Neil Morrison, leader of the Oxitec group explained that a so-called "self-limiting gene" is injected into male fruit flies. Such action will halt female fruit fly offsprings from surviving through the adult life stages.

When the engineered organisms are released to the natural environment, it will mate with the same species and pass the gene to its offspring, which will succumb to death prior to having the ability to damage crops.

"If you reduce the number of females, that knocks down the pest population in the next generation," said Morrison.

The said technique was used by his company to decrease the number of dengue-carrying Aedes aegypti in various countries such as Panama, Brazil and the Caribbean.

For the Australia-UK collaboration, eggs were obtained in the UK and raised at the DAFWA, which already confirmed that it will perform an indoor evaluation of the GMOs.

Dr. Nikolai Windbichler, a researcher from Imperial College concurred that multiple tests should be conducted first before arriving at a final conclusion of whether or not Medfly damage can finally be eradicated through genetic modification.

In the U.S., a similar intervention was recently performed at the University of California. In the experiments, researchers reared a genetically-engineered mosquito that cannot, in any way, be infected by malaria. They specifically rearranged the DNA of a mosquito infected with malaria to fight off the parasite. After testings, the DNA was inherited by close to 100 percent of the offsprings, up until the third generation.

Photo: Katja Schulz | Flickr

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