Can gene editing help tackle global issues?


WIRED - THE GLASSY-WINGED SHARPSHOOTER is a half-inch-long leafhopper that feeds by sticking its straw-like mouth into the watery tissue of plants. The insect is native to northeastern Mexico, but in the late 1980s, it made its way to Southern California. Since its arrival, it has wreaked havoc on the region’s vineyards.

Most of the damage has been caused not by the insect itself, but what it carries with it. The sharpshooter has an unrivaled ability to acquire and spread a pathogenic bacterium, Xylella fastidiosa, which causes a disorder known as Pierce’s disease in grapevines. Stricken plants wither and their grapes shrivel. Over the years, a variety of methods have been used to halt the sharpshooter’s spread, but it is showing increasing resistance to insecticides and represents a significant and growing threat to California’s $55bn wine industry.

“It’s already done its damage on Southern California and it’s now terrifying our grape growers in Central and Northern California,” says Linda Walling, a Professor of Genetics at the University of California, Riverside. In collaboration with colleagues Peter Atkinson and Rick Redak, the team is in the process of bringing a powerful new weapon to bear in the war against the sharpshooter: Gene-editing. Their aim is to make permanent physical changes in the insect that will make it much harder for it to pick up and transfer the Xylella bacterium.

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