The release of controversial genetically modified mosquitos designed to decrease the use of insecticides has taken place in Florida Keys.
Mosquitos are not only annoying but they can carry disease in their bites. In response to this, a company called Oxitec has genetically modified male mosquitos to pass on a killswitch to females. It is hoped that these genetically modified pests will help stop the transmission of deadly diseases, including yellow fever, dengue and Zika virus.
The Florida Keys project, which was greenlit by the US Environment Protection Agency in May 2020, has approved the release of 750 million modified mosquitos. However, at the moment only 144,000 will be released during a three-month trial period. Nonetheless, some people in the trial areas are concerned.
Jaydee Hanson, policy director for the International Center for Technology Assessment and Center for Food Safety, said in a statement:
With all the urgent crises facing our nation and the State of Florida — the Covid-19 pandemic, racial injustice, climate change — the administration has used tax dollars and government resources for a Jurassic Park experiment.
Hanson went on to note the ‘EPA unlawfully refused to seriously analyze environmental risks’ and believes that this experiment could damage the ecosystems in Florida.
On the other hand, scientists have seen this as a significant step forward. Oxitec CEO Grey Frandsen noted:
This is an exciting development because it represents the ground-breaking work of hundreds of passionate people over more than a decade in multiple countries, all of whom want to protect communities from dengue, Zika, yellow fever, and other vector-borne diseases.
The science behind the experiment is interesting and it targets the female yellow fever mosquito (Aedes aegypti) that bite for blood. GMO males are genetically engineered so when they mate they pass on a gene that targets female offspring. This offspring will have a killswitch that means they won’t reach maturity and be able to bite people and spread disease. Equally, males do not bite people and feed on nectar so there has been no need to modify a hereditary killswitch for them.
Oxitec has stressed that this practice is safe and intends to 20 million more male mosquitoes this year. However, some are concerned about the lack of communication around the GMO mosquitos and believe investments should have been spent elsewhere.
Time will tell whether these mutant mosquitos lead to a situation comparable to science fiction, but most scientists believe this rollout of GMO mosquitos will protect people from disease.