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March 20, 2007



Good comment, BioTunes. I found it interesting that this story, which was all over the wires from Instapundit to NPR, attracted all that attention but really offered very little beyond a status update of lab tests that are a very long way from being, as the spokeperson for the project admitted, "epidemiologically relevant." I also could not find the abstract in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, as Professor Rasgon is apparently not the lead author.


I am very skeptical that this would work. Governments have blown a ton of money on the technique of irradiating pest insects (for ex. Medfly), making them sterile, and releasing them in the wild in the hopes that sterile males would mate with wild females and thus prevent them from reproducing. "Preliminary evidence" indicated that the technique was working on a small scale. Because the cost of raising the flies and irradiating them was high, labs started working on a technique called "genetic sexing," in which female larvae could be identified with a marker earlier in development and killed, so that only males would be raised and released. The only problem was that an entomologist who actually went into the field to watch their mating behavior discovered that the reason the technique was working somewhat was because irradiated females were mating with wild males, and depleting their sperm. The bloated bureaucracy responsible for the genetic sexing project was not interested to hear his information.

In my experience, the reductionists who try these projects know nothing about the animal's natural history, particularly behavior in the wild (although I haven't bothered to look up these authors to find out in this case), which can make a huge difference. A genotype "winning" in a laboratory cage says nothing about its potential success in the field. Zero. So apart from raising questions of releasing "new" species into the wild, one just has to be cynical about efforts such as these. The impacts of the recent and continuing decline of support for scientists who study whole organisms rather than chunks of their DNA is going to be more and more obvious as the reductionists try in vain to solve "real world" problems.

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