It sounds like something out of science fiction, but the buzz is real. Local authorities in the Florida Keys okayed a plan to release genetically engineered mosquitoes into the community. The reason? In the hopes of reducing another kind of mosquito. Here’s a quick video summary, with details below.
Aedes aegypti, the technical name for these specific mosquitos, carry yellow fever, Zika, dengue, chikungunya, and other deadly diseases. According to Gizmodo, they’re the reason for last year’s outbreak of dengue fever in the Upper Keys, which infected nearly 50 people.
The project was given the green light by the Monroe County Mosquito Control District. This came after approvals by state and federal government. US News reports that 12,000 mosquitoes will be released in the initial stage, but later this year tens of millions of genetically modified Aedes aegypti will fan out across the region. These insects are genetically engineered to produce dead offspring. More specifically, they will be unable to produce female larvae that hatch and live long enough to spread disease.
Only female mosquitoes bite people or animals for their blood, so they are the creatures spreading the disease.
While this was the first time that genetically engineered insects have been released in the United States, it’s not a global first. Oxitec, the British company that designed these mosquitoes, already released them in Brazil. Scientists with the company say that the program led to significant declines in the population of disease-carrying insects.
“We have shown that the release of mosquitoes in a neighborhood results in 95 percent suppression compared to areas with no release,” said Nathan Rose, director of regulatory affairs at Oxitec.
Needless to say, not everyone is hopeful about the plan. Some public health officials have questioned whether this is the best approach, or time, to control mosquitoes in Florida.
There are fears the scheme could simply produce mosquitoes more resistant to insecticide. The impact of introducing hundreds of millions of tweaked mosquitoes into the ecosystem is unknown–and could be devastating.
Jaydee Hanson, policy director at the International Center for Technology Assessment and Center for Food Safety, is a naysayer. “With all the urgent crises facing our nation and the state of Florida—the COVID-10 pandemic, racial injustice, climate change—the administration has used tax dollars and government resources for a Jurassic Park experiment,” she said.
Oxitec insists that it has done the hard work, spending 18 years of public-private collaboration with universities, governments and global foundations and has worked with more than 200 scientists from over 20 countries.
“There haven’t been any side effects to the environment or people reported. So to say that we can’t use GMOs is like saying: ‘Hey, let’s not vaccinate for COVID,'” notes local resident and veterinary scientist Doug Mader.