In case you haven’t heard, mosquitoes can carry some pretty nasty diseases, like malaria, dengue, chikungunya, west nile, yellow fever, etc. And you’re probably aware that we don’t have the greatest ways of fighting these mosquitoes to prevent these diseases, as evidenced by the continued presence or increasing presence of these diseases. But new research is being done into using genetically modified mosquitoes to control mosquito populations.
Oxitec is the company that has been working on proving the usefulness of genetically modified mosquitoes to control mosquito populations and thereby control the diseases the mosquitoes carry. Basically they engineer mosquitoes to contain a so-called “kill switch” which is passed on to their offspring who don’t survive.
This method of controlling mosquito populations has been shown to be effective in Brazil and the Cayman Islands, where Oxitec has already used these GMO mosquitoes in some neighborhoods since 2012. In the Cayman Islands more than 96% of the mosquito population was suppressed, with similar success in Brazil. The target of the US trial is the notoriously hard to kill Aedes aegypti mosquitoes who love to carry disease and basically bite only humans.
Here’s where some hiccups come into play. Oxitec wants to try this in the Florida Keys since the Keys are already battling mosquito populations that are moving northward and carrying with them some new diseases not usually seen in the US. While Oxitec only wants to release genetically engineered males since they’ll mate with the females (who bite) and the offspring will die, Oxitec can’t guarantee that a couple females won’t sneak through their sorting process. So the uproar comes from the thought that the GMO female mosquitoes will insert their GMO genes into people when they bite even though Oxitec has said they’ve released over 70 million GMO mosquitoes without people reporting any side effects from bites. And if mosquitoes were able to transfer their own genetic material to humans when they bite us we’d have discovered that by now since millions of people are bitten by mosquitoes every day.
Oxitec has built a lab in Marathon, FL to help with their US based release of GMO mosquitoes. They’ve also previously received approval to import mosquito eggs to this new lab and that’s where they’ll be doing the genetic engineering for the US-released mosquitoes. The FDA has to approve the live release of the first genetically engineered mosquitoes in the US and has not done so, yet.