Should Genetically Modified Mosquitoes Be Let Loose In Key West?

Categories: Crime
The latest battle over genetically modified organisms is brewing in Key West. 

On one side, a British biotechnology firm called Oxitec and a mild-mannered Midwesterner by the name of Michael Doyle, who heads mosquito control operations in the Keys. Together, they want to release millions of genetically modified mosquitoes in the heart of Key West. 

On the other side, concerned Conchs, environmental groups and activist organizations who are banding together to stop the Keys from becoming the latest test grounds for a nascent and controversial technology. 
If the experiment is approved, Key West will be only the fourth site in the world to let modified mosquitoes fly free. 

This week's cover story examines the pros and cons of the experiment and sheds light on the missteps Oxitec has taken in the past. The mosquitoes are designed so that their offspring keel over and die soon after hatching. Only one species of mosquitoes, Aedes aegypti, is being targeted. The idea is that wiping out the Aedes aegypti population will keep dengue fever - a nasty, "pandemic-prone" disease - from showing up in the Keys. 

Doyle and Oxitec see the modified mosquitoes as an eco-friendly and economical alternative to the potent chemicals currently used. Opponents worry that there's no independent, third-party data showing the mosquitoes are safe and actually capable of staving off dengue.  

Sure, it's easy to write the whole experiment off as that weird bug thing going on in Key West. But it's important to realize the national and global implications of such an experiment. Approval from the FDA and a test in the Keys may very well usher in the age of genetically modified insects. 

We've already let genetically modified moths created by Oxitec loose in the southwest to safeguard crops from pests. Now we're inching toward a future in which genetically modified insects could be used to beat back diseases that have plagued mankind for centuries. 

Oxitec's mutant mosquitoes carry enormous potential. They also carry numerous uncertainness and a sense of sci-fi weirdness that many people are leery of.

Should we embrace this approach if it's proven to help stop the spread of diseases? Is tinkering with the genetics of insects and potentially altering the ecosystem going too far? 

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There are several cheap, effective and environmentally friendly alternatives to GM mosquitoes. Native plants that repel Aedes aegypti like American Beautyberry can be used as screening to reduce the House Index. A study using repellent plants in Tanzania reduced all mosquitoes found in houses by 50%, the cost was $1.50 per house which includes maintenance and labor costs. This can be used with attractants and lethal ovitraps using used coffee grounds or other cheap environmentally friendly larvicides, as well as fan traps on the lethal ovitraps to not only reduce the larvae survival but also catch the adult females. This push pull method may not only reduce the larvae from surviving, but unlike GM mosquitoes will also target the adult females and reduce the chance of Aedes aegypti entering the home, and at a fraction of the cost.

Other methods include the use of some strains of the fungi Beauveria bassiana and Metarhizium anisopliae which some peer reviewed studies suggest can also reduce the survival of Aedes aegypti offspring, but unlike GM mosquitoes can also cause mortality in the adult females, thus reducing both the population and the chance of being bit.Yet another example is use of the bacteria Wolbachia, which some peer reviewed studies suggest may reduce the adult Aedes aegypti lifespan by 50% and unlike GM mosquitoes may actually provide resistance against dengue serotype 2 and chikungunya. There are several other alternatives as well.

What mosquito control has failed to mention is that releasing millions of GM mosquitoes including thousands of females could potentially increase the risk of transmitting mosquito-borne diseases. Releasing millions of male mosquitoes may also increase the risk of chikungunya which a peer reviewed study suggested can be spread when Aedes aegypti mate. With each male mating as many as 21 times in their lifetime that is a huge risk not worth taking unless the adult female lifespan is significantly reduced or there is resistance against chikungunya, which doesn't appear to be the case for GM mosquitoes. There have been over 100 cases of chikungunya reported in the U.S. between 2006 and 2009 including cases in Florida so this a very real risk. Florida entomologist Walter J. Tabachnick, estimated that if an outbreak that occurred in Italy had occurred in Key West it would have caused 1,200 cases of chikungunya and 4,000 cases if it occurred during tourist season. The Beauveria bassiana and Metarhizium anisopliae alternatives both reduce the lifespan of the adult female and therefore reduce the chance of chikungunya spreading, they can also be used without releasing more males but instead infecting the already existing males and/or females. The Wolbachia alternative may reduce the lifespan of adult female Aedes aegypti and may even provide resistance against chikungunya, so even if more males were released there would be a significantly reduced risk of spreading chikungunya compared to GM mosquitoes.

There are numerous unknowns such as whether or not the synthetic protein based on sequences from E.coli and the Herpes simplex virus that the GM mosquitoes express could be transmitted to humans during a bite or affect animals ingesting them. As well as a partially independent lab reporting 15% of the GM mosquito offspring surviving in the presence of chicken found in cat food and a member of the mosquito control district admitting that Aedes aegypti have been found breeding in pet dishes, making such an event likely if GM mosquitoes are released. Along with Florida Medical Entomology Laboratory's Phil Lounibos stating there is no supporting background evidence that GM mosquitoes would solve a dengue problem. All of this and more makes a GM mosquito release seem like an expensive, pointless and potentially risky proposal.


"Opponents worry that there's no independent, third-party data showing the mosquitoes are safe and actually capable of staving off dengue."

And one gathers this data how? By releasing the mosquitos, that's how; we can't allow ourselves to fall into the trap of "we won't know it's safe until we have the data, and we won't get the data until we know it's safe."


"Let Lose" ???  Oops... 

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