You’ve heard of genetically modified food, but have you heard of genetically modified mosquitoes? A controversial plan has been given the green light to trial these GMO insects in Florida this summer. This is what you need to know.
Genetically Modified Mosquitoes to be Released in Florida
In June, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer services gave the go-ahead to release 750 million genetically modified mosquitoes in the Florida Keys. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has also approved the trial, as well as another set to take place in Texas next year. (1)
As part of a project by British-based biotechnology company Oxitec, the US is becoming the testing grounds for a version of Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, the kind that carries viruses such as Zika. These bugs carry a protein that will kill their female offspring. The goal is that this will prevent them from biting humans and spreading diseases like Zika and dengue fever. (1)
A key component of the trial is that only male mosquitoes will be released. Because male mosquitoes do not bite people, supporters of the project say that there is no danger to humans. (1)
“To meet today’s public health challenges head-on, the nation needs to facilitate innovation and advance the science around new tools and approaches to better protect the health of all Americans,” the EPA wrote in their news release. (1)
Oxitec’s permit will last for two years and requires the company to sample and monitor the mosquito population weekly throughout the course of the trial. The EPA has also reserved the right to cancel the trial at any time if any unforeseen problems arise or they don’t feel the experiment is going as it should. (1)
How It Works
Female mosquitoes bite humans because they need the blood to grow their eggs. Males, on the other hand, do not. The Oxitec mosquito, known as OX5034, is a male. They carry a special gene that stops female offspring from surviving to adulthood, so they won’t bite humans. (2)
As the OX5034 continues to reproduce, the Aedes aegypti population will decline over time. Fewer mosquitoes to bite people, of course, means less disease. (2)
Oxitec claims that their genetically modified mosquitoes have already helped reduce the population of these disease-carrying insects by 86% to 96% in Brazil, who suffered from a terrible Zika outbreak in 2015 and 2016. (2)
Not Actually New News
This project isn’t actually as new as it seems: Oxitec has been trying to secure Florida as the first American testing site for almost 10 years already. (2)
In 2016, the Monroe County citizens voted to release the GMO mosquitoes. The Key Haven residents, however, where the mosquitoes were set to be released, voted against it. County officials tried to pick a new site, but the federal government shut it down. (2)
When regulatory control over mosquitoes changed from the food and drug administration (FDA) to the EPA, however, Oxitec had another chance. They reapplied with the EPA, and are back to where they were in 2016. Currently, they are waiting on approvals from the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District. (2)
None of this will go forward as planned, however, if the Florida Keys Environmental Coalition has any say in the matter. They, along with many other Florida residents, object to being treated like human guinea pigs in this experiment. (2)
Calling this a “Jurassic Park” type experiment, the concern of all opposing groups is that Oxitec and the EPA have not done enough work looking into the “what if’s” of the trial and what impacts this could have on humans, other animals, and the environment. (2)
The Florida Keys Environmental Coalition has requested numerous times that Oxitec work with them in proving the safety of the trial before launching it but has failed to get anywhere with it. (2)
The Bottom Line
There are pros and cons to both sides, as there usually is. A world free from mosquito-borne diseases like Malaria or the Zika virus? Beautiful. The unknown effects on the ecosystem and the subsequent consequences from there? Most definitely concerning. We can only hope that should the genetically modified mosquitoes go to trial, those in control have plans in place in case anything should go wrong that will protect all residents of the area: plant, animal, and human.
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