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.

Research is already underway, for instance, to create mosquitoes with genes that render them incapable of transmitting malaria, with the idea that the souped-up mosquitoes would be released into the environment to spread their new genes into every type of mosquito capable of carrying the disease.

Malaria sickens more than 300 million people a year and kills more than a million, many of them babies in Africa, so any technology that brought it under control would be a milestone in social history. Yet, in one example of the complicated questions society will have to confront, it’s theoretically possible that rendering mosquitoes immune to malaria will make them ecologically fitter, and therefore more likely to transmit other diseases, some of which are fatal.

Mosquito researchers have said they are well aware of the potential risks and have pledged caution in moving forward with their experiments.

The Pew report noted that someone is going to have to decide what kind of research is needed to estimate the likely effects, and then decide whether the benefits of releasing the designer mosquitoes are worth the risks. And that decision will have to be made in a complex international environment: Many African and Asian countries are ill-equipped to assess elaborate genetic technologies, and their citizens are sometimes suspicious even of simple technologies designed in the West. Just recently, resistance to polio vaccination in some Muslim communities in Africa led to an upsurge of that disease.

American regulatory agencies are likely to play a key role in overseeing the insect research, since much of the laboratory work will be conducted in the United States, the Pew report said. Yet only the Agriculture Department has moved to assert jurisdiction, and only over a relatively limited group of gene-altered insects, namely those that could become plant pests. The few gene-altered insects likely to be ready for commercialization in the next five years would probably be covered under those rules, including an altered variety of pink bollworm meant to help control that pest in cotton. But the majority of insects on the drawing board would not be covered, the Pew report said.

The Agriculture Department, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration all have congressional authority that might give them some oversight power, but the agencies have yet to stake out whether, or how, they will use their authority to oversee the full range of gene-altered insects.

More here.