Extermination has traditionally been focused on two axises: prevention and extermination. On the preventive axis, we have all of the things that you can do to avoid pests spawning in the first place: sealing holes in your walls so mice can’t access your food, turning over stagnant water so mosquitos can’t spawn, and all manner of other techniques that you use before pests become a problem. On the extermination axis, we have all the tools to deal with pests who have become a problem: fumigation, traps, heat treatment, and all of the other tools for pest control Winnipeg residents can use. There’s a new axis that has developed recently, though, one with a myriad of philosophical and scientific implications; the CRISPR system.
You might have heard a bit about CRISPR; basically, it’s a gene editing tool that’s being developed that could have incredible uses. CRISPR is actually found in bacteria; it consists of repeating bits of genetic code with spaces that can be occupied by genetic code left behind by invaders. In short, it’s basically a bacterial immune system; the CRISPR system is incredibly complicated, and this is just the barebones basics (I’m not a geneticist, after all).
The system allows for what might potentially be revolutionary changes to genetic code. In humans, it’s thought that CRISPR might be able to edit genes responsible for disorders as diverse as sickle-cell and Alzheimer’s. Quite controversially, a Chinese scientist claims to have already edited human babies with CRISPR, alleging that the editing has made the babies immune to HIV. Gene editing in humans could have incredible medical potential, but some worry that it’s a slippery slope; they fear that genes will be edited to alter appearance, or intelligence, or strength, or any other manner of things, creating “designer babies”.
At this point, you may be wondering what any of this has to do with pest control. The answer lies in how we can use CRISPR to alter the genetic code of pests. Specifically, we might be able to alter the code of mosquitos in order to make the males infertile; assuming enough males are edited, this could crash the mosquito population. Some scientists have also speculated you could create a CRISPR time bomb, where the first populations affected would still be able to reproduce, but in a few generations, when the CRISPR edited offspring are more prominent, the time bomb would go off, and males would lose the ability to reproduce, effectively destroying whole populations of mosquitos.
Theories like this sound promising, but one has to wonder what might happen if we suddenly destroy whole populations of insects. While mosquitoes are a pest, eliminating all of them could create lasting consequences to the ecosystem; think about what insecticides did before we realized how adversely they were affecting the whole insect population. That’s the reason targeted larvicides and ovicides are becoming more common; they don’t affect other insects. This is a brave new world for pest control, but we must proceed cautiously; what seem like pests to us might play an important role in the wider world.