Florida Keys use nature to turn mosquitoes against each other

The Florida Keys are the setting for an experiment to pit mosquitoes against one another in the hopes that they kill each other and leave us humans with fewer instances of mosquito-borne disease. While the southern United States’ rainy season is approaching and the area is bracing for mosquito-season, and the subsequent increase in cases of diseases like Zika, Dengue, and Chikungunya, this trial could provide the answers that many are searching for when it comes to effectively controlling mosquito populations.

Aedes aegypti mosquito. Courtesy CDC.

Aedes aegypti mosquito. Courtesy CDC.

This trial, being conducted by the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District and MosquitoMate, is using Wolbachia bacteria, which are naturally occurring bacteria, that have been manually introduced into male Aedes aegypti mosquitoes. When these infected male mosquitoes (males don’t bite, only females bite) mate with females, the bacteria causes their eggs not to hatch. This effectively wipes out the next generation of mosquitoes without using any chemical sprays. The Florida Keys Mosquito Control is releasing 20 000 of these bacteria-infected mosquitoes in 20 different locations, and this will continue to happen twice a week for the next 12 weeks.

Catherine Pruszynski, a research entomologist with the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District, releases male mosquitoes infected with Wolbachia bacteria Tuesday on Stock Island.

Catherine Pruszynski, a research entomologist with the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District, releases male mosquitoes infected with Wolbachia bacteria Tuesday on Stock Island. Courtesy NANCY KLINGENER / WLRN

The theory goes that fewer mosquitoes mean fewer instances of mosquito-borne disease. Makes sense to me. Especially since these Wolbachia-infected mosquitoes have shown they work, in 2011 in Cairns, Austrailia, and in August 2016 in Clovis, California.

Now this is not the first time that we’ve heard of a company wanting to release modified mosquitoes in the Keys. You may remember some news coverage of a company called Oxitec wanting to do a similar trial that used mosquitoes that were genetically modified to not be able to breed. There was a lot of pushback from the community, even though the mosquito was approved by the FDA, about having genetically modified organisms released in their community. Oxitec had shown success with these mosquitoes in Grand Cayman Island among other non-US locations. And they are continuing to work the the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District to try to hold their trial, but time will tell if they can persuade the residents that their mosquitoes are safe.

These two options for modifying mosquitoes could be the future of mosquito control. But there are still many concerns and issues at play. One bright side is the potential to expand this technology to malaria-burdened areas. Reducing the mosquito burden could save countless lives while we eagerly await a malaria vaccine. Time will tell if the United States is ready to embrace the science behind these innovations, or if our fear of mutant mosquitoes will overrule logic.

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