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Cambridge University Science Magazine
Horizontal gene transfer (HGT) involves the transfer of genetic information between organisms, often from two different species. Genes can be transferred to insects via HGT from bacteria, fungi, viruses, and even plants. Many of these genes have important ecological functions in the host insects, impacting characteristics such as metabolism, adaptation, immunity, and courtship.

Research has found that lepidopterans, a group of insects containing butterflies and moths, have especially high levels of HGT-acquired gene expression, including a particular gene that impacts mating behaviours of species such as the diamondback moth. Diamondback moths are a prolific agricultural pest, causing significant loss of brassica crops. Through knockout of a specific HGT-acquired gene that contributes to courtship behaviours, it is possible to significantly reduce the number of courting attempts made by male diamondback moths which could potentially be used in population control.

These findings have implications for pest control via genetic modification of pest species like the diamondback moth; however, gene-drive modifications could have unintended consequences. The unintentional eradication of insect species could irreversibly impact dependent species or ecological functions and could even be transferred beyond the target species. Therefore, scientists need to remain cautious about the applications of gene editing in insects.

Lily Taylor

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