The insect world could shortly undergo a genetic makeover in the laboratory. Scientists are at work developing silkworms that produce pharmaceuticals instead of silk, honeybees resilient enough to resist pesticides and even mosquitoes capable of delivering vaccines, instead of disease, with every bite.
Researchers are tinkering with insect genes to develop more than a dozen new varieties, offering potentially broad social benefits while posing complicated new health and environmental risks. Though most of the designer insects are at least five to 10 years away from reality, concern is growing that government agencies have yet to think about how to oversee the research.
A new report scheduled for release this morning warns that the issues posed by gene-altered insects are so complex that unless federal agencies begin now to design methods of oversight, the necessary rules may not be in place when scientists are ready to start releasing insects into the environment.
The report by the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology, a think tank in Washington, outlined laboratory work of astonishing ambition, with goals that go far beyond the relatively limited uses to which genetic engineering has been put to date.