Researchers Tout GM Maggots as Major Wound-Healing Advancement

genetically modified maggot
Science & Medicine

The idea of altering the genes of any biological thing is worrisome and hair-raising at the very least, but there’s just something especially freakish about the concept of genetically modified maggots. Aren’t they nasty enough without mankind tampering with their make-up?

Well, researchers at North Carolina State University (NCSU) believe GM maggots could play a vital role in the wound healing process and encouraging new cell growth.

Most people don’t spot a clump of wriggling maggots and go, “Oh, good! Maggots!” If you see one in an open wound, it’s a sign that you really need medical help, and if you spot them on food or in the trash, it’s time to do some hardcore cleaning.

But as disgusting as they are, maggots are useful. They eat up nasty bacteria, and have actually been used to aid in wound healing for centuries. (Though waking up to them digging around a sore in your arm is never good.) Maggots are a cheap treatment method, and they chow down on dead skin cells while leaving healthy ones untouched by producing anti-microbial factors.

There is a wound healing practice known as Maggot Debridement Therapy – MDT for short – in which sterile and lab-raised green bottle fly larvae are applied on wounds that fail to heal, such as diabetic foot ulcers, to reduce infection and promote healing. MDT became a Food and Drug Administration- (FDA) accepted practice in 2014. [1]

And, well, I suppose that’s better than having your foot amputated.

Maggots on wound
Source: University of Wisconsin – La Crosse

Genetically Modified Maggot Created

The NCSU researchers have created genetically modified maggots that secrete a human growth factor to promote healing, which they say makes them even more powerful in fighting infection. Normal maggots take their sweet time healing a wound, but the Franken-maggots are made to set about their work in a speedier fashion.

For the research, the team created 2 groups of maggots – 1 that was engineered to produce and secrete human growth factor when the maggots were heated to 37 degrees Celsius (98.6 degrees Fahrenheit, normal human body temperature), and another group to produce human growth factor only if they were fed a diet that did not include the antibiotic tetracycline.

The researchers found that the maggots that were heated to normal human body temperature produced the human growth factor, but did not make it out of their bodies. They neither secreted nor excreted the molecules.

The group of maggots that were fed a tetracycline-free diet shed the growth factor in their secretions and excretions. While the team hasn’t tested these maggots on actual wounds, they hope the critters can act as both wound cleaners and medications, and will also shorten healing time. It is the maggots’ excretions that aid in wound healing.

green bottle flyMax Scott, professor of entomology in NC State University said:

“It is helpful to know that a heat-inducible system can work for certain proteins in the green bottle fly, but the fact that maggots did not secrete the human growth factor makes this technique a non-starter for clinical applications like MDT.” [2]

Scientists plan to test the maggots’ genetically engineered healing power on lab rats to find out how well they heal and prevent infection. They say that if it proves effective, the method could be used to treat dozens of common conditions, including burns, bedsores, and ulcers. [3]

Scott said:

“A vast majority of people with diabetes live in low- or middle-income countries, with less access to expensive treatment options. We see this as a proof-of-principle study for the future development of engineered L. sericata strains that express a variety of growth factors and anti-microbial peptides with the long-term aim of developing a cost-effective means for wound treatment that could save people from amputation and other harmful effects of diabetes.”

The potential dangers of genetically engineering maggots hasn’t fully reached the surface – other than the general untold effects on DNA and the ecosystem at large – but here are a couple things to keep in mind. Every drug that has ever been recalled in the U.S. was first approved and deemed safe by the FDA, so engineering maggots for wound healing might one day prove to be unsafe; and if the potential dangers are anything like those posed by GM mosquitoes, these creepy lab-grown larvae aren’t as safe as researchers would have us believe.


[1] NH Voice

[2] PerfScience

[3] Modern Readers

University of Wisconsin – La Crosse