Biology

CRISPR flies have been gene edited so they can eat poison

CRISPR flies have been gene ed...
A fruit fly on the wing of a monarch butterfly
A fruit fly on the wing of a monarch butterfly
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The fruit fly has been genetically engineered to have the ability to live off a poisonous plant, which the monarch butterfly can naturally do
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The fruit fly has been genetically engineered to have the ability to live off a poisonous plant, which the monarch butterfly can naturally do
A fruit fly on the wing of a monarch butterfly
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A fruit fly on the wing of a monarch butterfly

Scientists at the University of California, Berkeley have used the CRISPR gene-editing tool to give fruit flies an evolutionary advantage they’ve never had before. By making just three small changes to a single gene, the team gave the flies the ability to effectively eat poison and store it in their bodies, protecting themselves from predators in the process.

Milkweed is a common plant that’s toxic to most animals and insects – but the monarch butterfly flies in the face of that plant’s defenses. The bug has evolved the ability to not only thrive on the poisonous plant, but turn it to its own advantage. It stores the toxins in its body, making it poisonous to any predators that might try to eat it.

And now, the UC Berkeley researchers have given fruit flies that ability for the first time. CRISPR has been used to edit the genes of insects, mammals and even humans, but the team says this is the first time a multicellular organism has been edited to endow it with new behaviors and adaptations to the environment. In this case, that means a new diet and a new defense mechanism against predators.

The researchers first looked at the butterfly genes that are believed to let them dine on milkweed, and then tried to recreate those specific mutations in the fruit flies. They found that a single gene is responsible, and they only had to substitute three nucleotides in that gene to give the flies the same superpower.

The edited fruit fly maggots were able to thrive on a diet of milkweed, storing those toxins in their bodies, and these abilities stayed with them even after they underwent metamorphosis and became adult flies. The mutation allowed the insects to be 1,000 times less sensitive to the milkweed toxin than wild fruit flies.

The fruit fly has been genetically engineered to have the ability to live off a poisonous plant, which the monarch butterfly can naturally do
The fruit fly has been genetically engineered to have the ability to live off a poisonous plant, which the monarch butterfly can naturally do

“All we did was change three sites, and we made these superflies,” says Noah Whiteman, lead author of the study. “But to me, the most amazing thing is that we were able to test evolutionary hypotheses in a way that has never been possible outside of cell lines. It would have been difficult to discover this without having the ability to create mutations with CRISPR.”

The gene at the center of the study builds the flies’ sodium pumps, a vital part of the cell that maintains the right balance of sodium ions. The milkweed toxin is known to clog this mechanism with deadly consequences, but the monarch butterfly (and now the fruit fly) has mutations that allow it to get around this problem.

Interestingly, the three mutations have to happen in a certain order to work. The team found that two of the mutations gave the insects a strong resistance to the poison, but also seriously affected their nervous systems. The third mutation cancels out the negative effects, leaving just the toxin resistance.

The study has important implications not only for our understanding of how evolution works, but also potentially widening the use of the CRISPR gene-editing tool as a way to direct evolution of new traits and behaviors.

The research was published in the journal Nature.

Source: UC Berkeley

12 comments
Brian M
Interesting as it might be - There is science and there is irresponsible science - this comes under the latter. Just hope none escape into the wild - Experiments like this can have devastating effects if they go wrong for example competition for the Monarch butterfly (think grey squirrels in the UK), or problems for the predators of the fruit fly and its numbers end up out of control. Such experiments, if done, need to be housed in very secure containment lab facilities similar to those used for other highly dangerous biological material such as smallpox. it might seem like a good idea at first, but unintended consequences can be horrendous (think Africanized honey bees). The old adage if it can go wrong it will go wrong comes to mind!
F.Gogoni
Then birds eats them and die! Very stupid!
Vobomex
Why has this been done? What is the motivation?
Worzel
Thats all we need, billions of toxic fruit flies to poison all the birds that help remove them from orchards. This would class as a crime against humanity, and all small bird, and animal life. Perhaps it could be called treason against life. The penalties for treason in most countries are often the ultimate.
neoneuron
VERY irresponsible!! Are we re-doing the stupidity of Africanized Bees, and birds dying?? Making stuff with only money in mind, and not thinking about the consequences is idiotic at best. If you want to do something, work on human errors - they don't run as fast.
Paul Muad'Dib
Obviously this is being done at the direction of killer AI with designs on taking over humanity that or any other TV, movie or woo woo inspired thinking.
Cryptonoetic
Darwin has done this many times over the ages (e.g., Monarch butterfly FTA). I say we dox the D.
Gregg Eshelman
Now that they've proven this works, have they destroyed all the specimens? Absolutely not something that should be allowed to get into the wild. They should work on making beneficial insects able to eat and excrete poisons without ill effects to them or what preys on them. Dr. Ian Malcolm: Yeah, but your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn't stop to think if they should.
christopher
Boggles the mind that UC Berkeley allowed this, and put their name on it. There's SO MANY beneficial things they could have done instead, but they created an advanced pest and made it toxic to predators instead. Our race is doomed - even supposedly smart people just have no capacity to engage their brains.
toni24
Now why in the world would anyone in their right mind create a fruit fly that becomes poisonous??? The damned things are bad enough without being toxic, imagine should they escape and reproduce outside the lab