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Oxitec: the Oxford business genetically engineering a dead end for mosquitos

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The mosquito is by some way the deadliest animal in the world. In terms of the number of human victims they claim each year nothing comes close, not even humans.

Certain species of the midge-like insects can carry extremely harmful diseases, which are transmitted when they feed on human blood. The most infamous and deadly is of course malaria, but there are many others.  

Dengue fever – also known as breakbone fever – is one. It is a viral infection usually found in tropical and sub-tropical climates, affecting 50-100 million people every year. In most cases, it causes a flu-like illness and severe joint and muscle pain, from which it gets its graphic nickname.

However, the fever can develop into a potentially lethal complication called severe dengue. This is a leading cause of serious illness and death among children in some Asian and Latin American countries.  

Each year, an estimated 500,000 people require hospitalisation because of severe dengue, with the majority being children. About 2.5% of those affected die. 

“Dengue fever is a very unpleasant, frightening disease. There’s no medication and there’s no vaccine,” said Hadyn Parry, chief executive of the Oxford-based biotech company Oxitec. 

Many countries have been fighting a long, losing battle against the aedes aegypti mosquito, the carrier of dengue. It is tiny yet distinctive, identifiable by its bright white stripes. Its name means ‘out of Egypt’. Carried from North Africa by men, the adaptable menace can also spread yellow fever and the chikungunya virus – an emerging and untreatable threat.

Where the mosquito goes, dengue is never far behind. The Portuguese archipelago of Madeira found their first aedes aegypti in 2005. A major dengue outbreak followed in 2012. 

Around the world, cases have risen thirtyfold in the last fifty years. Traditional pesticides have proved ineffective and even harmful. 

Oxitec present a pioneering alternative. Their method, which has been piloted and approved in Brazil, uses genetic engineering to control mosquito populations in a precise and environmentally friendly way.

They produce a lab-grown strain of sterilised male mosquitos to be released into the wild. Only females bite. Males lack the inclination and even the anatomy to feed on humans. When freed, the males simply track down their blood-sucking love-interests and mate. The resulting offspring inherit genes that act like a ticking time bomb, and die before they reach adulthood.

“If you do this enough times, you crash the population,” Parry explained. 

Trials in Brazil, the Cayman Islands and Malaysia have shown that mosquito numbers can be reduced by more than 90% within months.

The approach is remarkably effective and entirely species specific. Pesticides dispersed in toxic fogs kill indiscriminately, damaging delicate ecosystems. Oxitec’s method, Parry explained, is “self-limiting”.

“Every single one of our mosquitos is only going to do one of two things. Its either going to find a female, mate with her, die and produce offspring that will die. Or, he won’t find a female and he’ll die anyway.

“There’s nothing that spreads into the environment. Nothing is left in the environment.”

The usual GM concerns – fears that genetic meddling can pass through the environment and the food chain – do not apply.

“What is interesting about this is the idea that people conjure up when they think about genetically engineered things, they tend to think about crops,” Parry said.

“Crops of course persist in the environment and their genes can spread, but this is the exact opposite. You’re dealing in sterility.

“It’s a dead end.”

Parry admits that Oxitec has taken heat from pressure groups opposed to genetic modification outright. But from the general public, in countries blighted by dengue, the reception is overwhelmingly positive. 

“At the end of the day, people don’t like getting ill. The mosquito is nobody’s friend,” he said.

The commercial license Oxitec has recently obtained in Brazil is the company’s first – the first of its type in the world, no less – but Parry hopes to gain many more. 

Regulators are keen, and not surprisingly. Oxitec estimate that dengue costs the global economy around $5 billion (£2.92bn) every year. Brazil alone spends around $1 billion (£580m) trying to control it. Discussions are also ongoing regarding outdoor trials elsewhere, from Florida to India. 

Beyond aedes aegypti, Parry said he would like to adapt his method to take on anopheles and culex mosquitos, the vectors of malaria and West Nile virus.  

Oxitec are also currently developing species of agricultural pests, swapping the battle against disease for the battle for food security.  

“We think it has huge application in agriculture too – particularly where you have one main dominant pest,” Parry said.

“For example, olives. Olives are predominantly attacked by the olive fly. The olive fly can devastate the olive crop. In a case like that our approach would work very well indeed.”

First on the agenda though, is commercialisation in Brazil. Oxitec’s first factory in Brazil will open shortly. Soon, customers – local authorities and governments – will be able to purchase Oxitec’s services.

All of this has been made possible by the completion of a recent £6.1 million investment round. Existing Oxitec shareholders, including Oxford Capital Partners and the University of Oxford, completed the fundraising alongside private investors from around the world.

Parry explained that these supporters – “typically international, seasoned businesspeople and high-net-worths who understand dengue fever and environmental issues” – have helped with more than their money.

“We deliberately went out to try and get investors from around the world – from Brazil, Argentina, Asia – because it’s a contact point in those markets. It is very helpful for us.

“Some are very engaged and email me all the time. We have a very good relationship with our shareholders.”

The exit for these shareholders will come with an eventual IPO, but for now Parry eyes organic growth while building the business. With enquiries pouring in, Oxitec is primed for success. 

The future looks bright for Oxitec, decidedly less so for aedes aegypti.

Photo: U.S. Department of Agriculture via Flickr

Further reading:

£6.1m investment for Oxford firm that battles dengue fever with GM mosquitos

Warming UK cities could attract mosquitoes, says new study

Triodos teams up with natural insect repellent firm for EIS investment offer

Climate change could put millions more at risk of malaria

Dengue fever outbreak ‘imminent’ in Europe because of climate change

 

 

Environment

4 Common Items That Can be Reused Again and Again

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reuse reduce recycle plastic bottles etc
Shutterstock Licensed Photo - By Vanatchanan | https://www.shutterstock.com/g/vanatchanan%20buahom

As a society we are getting much better at taking our obligations to the world and environment around us more seriously. This is undoubtedly a good thing! The effects of climate change are beginning to manifest across the world, and this is turning the issue from an abstract threat into a very real danger. Trying to introduce some greener, more eco-friendly practices into your life isn’t just a great way of doing something beneficial for society and the world around you. It is a wonderful way of engaging positively with the world and carries with it numerous psychological benefits.

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Being a greener, more ecologically friendly person doesn’t require any dramatic life changes. Breaking or making a few small habits is all it takes to make your life a greener one. In this article we look at one of the easiest, yet most effective green practices to get into: reusing everyday items.

Jars and Containers

Glass and metal are widely recycled, and recycling is a good thing! However, consider whether any containers you buy, whether it’s a tub of ice cream or a jar of coffee, can be washed out and reused for something else. Mason jars, for example, can be used to store homemade pasta sauce and can be washed for future use. Once you start thinking about it, you will find endless opportunities to reuse your old containers.

Soda Bottles

An ice-cold soda is a wonderful treat on a hot day, but buying soda can get expensive, and the manufacturing and distribution of the drinks themselves isn’t great for the environment. However, by holding on to your old soda bottles and repurposing them as water bottles, you can save money on drinks, or use them to measure out water for your garden.

Plastic Bags

Most of the time groceries come in paper bags, which are better for the environment than the plastic alternatives, but they are less durable and thus harder to reuse. Whenever the store places your items in a plastic bag, hang onto it so you can reuse the bags again. If you want to take it one step further, consider looking into buying some personalized recycled bags. These bags are designed to last for a long time and are made of recycled materials. They look striking and unique, they’ll turn heads, and maybe even attitudes!

Seeds

If you’re a keen gardener, then you will already probably know how to reseed your plants in order to ensure a fresh crop after each plant’s lifecycle. If you have space in your garden, or haven’t yet tried your hand at gardening, then consider planting a small vegetable plot. Growing your own veggies means that you’ll be helping to cut back on the emissions generated by their transport and production. The best part about growing your own food in this way is that, by harvesting properly and saving the seeds, you can be set up with fresh vegetables for life!

Reusing and recycling common household items is an easy way to make your world a little bit greener. Once you start looking for these opportunities you’ll realize that they’re everywhere!

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Environment

These 5 Green Office Mistakes Are Costing You Money

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eco-friendly green offices
Shutterstock Licensed Photo - By Stokkete | https://www.shutterstock.com/g/cyano

The sudden interest in green business is very encouraging. According to recent reports, 42% of all companies have rated sustainability as an important element of their business. Unfortunately, the focus on sustainability will only last if companies can find ways to use it to boost their ROI.

Many businesses get so caught up in being socially conscious that they hope the financial aspect of it takes care of itself. The good news is that there are plenty of ways to go green and boost your net income at the same time.

Here are some important mistakes that you will want to avoid.

Only implementing sustainability on micro-scale

The biggest reason that brands are going green is to improve their optics with their customers. Too many businesses are making very minor changes, such as processing paperwork online and calling themselves green.

Customers have become wary of these types of companies. If you want to earn their business, you are going to need to go all the way. Bring in a green business consultant and make every feasible change to demonstrate that you are a green organization from top to bottom.

Not prioritizing investments by long-term ROI

It isn’t realistic to build an entirely green organization overnight. You will need to allocate your capital wisely.

Before investing in any green assets or services, you should always conduct a long-term cost benefit analysis. The initial investment for some green services may be over $20,000. If they don’t shave your cost by at least $3,000 a year, they probably aren’t worth the investment.

Determine which green investments will have the best pay off over the next 10 years. Make these investments before anything else. Then compare your options within each of those categories.

Implementing green changes without a plan

Effective, long-term planning is the key to business success. This principle needs to be applied to green organizations as well.

Before implementing a green strategy, you must answer the following questions:

  • How will I communicate my green business philosophy to my customers?
  • How will running a green business affect my revenue stream?
  • How will adopting green business strategies change my monthly expenses? Will they increase or decrease them?
  • How will my company finance green upgrades and other investments?

The biggest mistake that too many green businesses make is being overly optimistic with these forecasts. Take the time to collect objective data and make your decisions accordingly. This will help you run a much more profitable green business.

Not considering the benefits of green printing

Too many companies believe that going paperless is the only way to run a green organization. Unfortunately, going 100% paperless it’s not feasible for most companies.

Rather than aim for an unrealistic goal, consider the option of using a more environmentally friendly printer. It won’t be perfect, but it will be better than the alternative.

According to experts from Doranix, environmental printers have several benefits:

  • They can process paper that has been completely recycled.
  • They consume less energy than traditional printers.
  • They use ink that is more environmentally friendly.

You want to take a look at different green printers and compare them. You’ll find that some will meet your needs as a green business.

Poorly communicating your green business strategy to customers

Brand positioning doesn’t happen on its own. If you want to run a successful green business, you must communicate your message to customers as clearly as possible. You must also avoid the appearance that you are patronizing them.

The best approach is to be clear when you were first making the change. I’ll make an announcement about your company‘s commitment to sustainability.

You also want to reinforce this message overtime by using green labels on all of your products. You don’t have to be blatant with your messaging at this stage. Simply provide a small, daily reminder on your products and invoices.

Finally, it is a good idea to participate in green business seminars and other events. If your community has a local Green Chamber of Commerce, you should consider joining as well.

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