NC State Goes to Peru!

NC State's NSF-funded IGERT program in Genetic Engineering and Society just completed its course, Pest Issues in Developing Nations: Biology, Culture and Infrastructure. Most of the course was held in Lima and Iquitos, Peru.

Earlier this spring, six graduate students from an array of disciplines were accepted into this program to study emerging issues related to genetic engineering and society in Latin America. The inaugural cohort consists of Tim Antonelli (Biomathematics), Amanda Clayton (Economics and Anthropology), William Klobasa (Entomology), Molly Hartzog Storment (Communication, Rhetoric, and Digital Media), Sophia Webster (Entomology), and Gabriel Zilnik (Entomology).

The summer course in Peru was led by Dr. Fred Gould (Entomology), Dr. Nora Haenn (Anthropology), Dr. Andrew Binder (Communication), Dr. Alun Lloyd (Biomathematics), and Dr. Yasmine Cardoza (Entomology). In addition to the NC State students, four Peruvian students participated in the course -- Sebastian Davis (Universidad Nacional Agraria La Molina), Daniela Gálvez Gil (Universidad Nacional Agraria La Molina), Diego A. Vargas Blanco (Universidad Católica de Santa María), and Gabriela Vásquez La Torre (Universidad Nacional de la Amazonía Peruana).

The focus of the first cohort is to study the biological, ecological, social, and ethical aspects of genetically modified mosquitoes, specifically Aedes aegypti, which transmits dengue to over 100 million people per year. While in Peru, the group engaged with local researchers, government officials, citizens, healthcare providers, and other university students in order to learn more about the ecology of Ae. aegypti and the social factors surrounding Ae. aegypti, the dengue virus, and genetic engineering.

After a week of preparation at NC State, the group traveled to Lima, Peru, attending symposia at local Peruvian universities, visiting privately and corporately owned farms in the nearby Cañete Valley, and learning about Limean culture. The last two weeks of the course were spent in the city of Iquitos, near the Amazon river. Their time in Iquitos involved engaging with local researchers and citizens, conducting a mosquito larvae experiment, participating in evening lectures on topics related to mosquito ecology and genetics, and visiting local health care facilities and homes where mosquito and dengue surveys were being conducted.

In 2010, the world heard of the first open field release of a genetically engineered mosquito. This release was aimed at suppressing dengue fever. The NC State cohort of IGERT students will examine the molecular genetic and ecological properties of the released strain, and they will assess the potential for building other types of transgenic strains for combating dengue and malaria. They hope to answer questions such as: How will societies and environments react to this new technology? And, what implications will these reactions have for ongoing research and application?

The history of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) offers ambiguous answers to these questions. For example, insulin, produced by genetically engineered microbes, appears to have been universally embraced. Other products, such as transgenic crops, have been controversial enough to garner political protest and change the tenor of relations within and between their associated commercial and academic scientific communities.

Future cohorts in NC State's IGERT will focus on genetic pest management and invasive mice (2013-2014), mosquitoes and endangered bird species, invasive fish, stored grain beetles, and fruit flies.

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Article by Molly Hartzog Storment.

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