This outbreak sent mosquito control into hyperdrive, and the local Department of Health launched massive education campaigns that urged residents to dump any standing water and use bug spray liberally. These efforts appeared successful: There hasn't been a confirmed case of dengue in the Keys since November 2010.

This dearth of recent infections is a rallying point for the concerned Conchs at the table. "There haven't been any reported cases in almost two years, but they're trying to use [dengue fever] as the reason they need to release Oxitec's mosquitoes," says Kelly Young, a blond, soccer-mom-looking lady. "There's no validity to that argument."

An elderly woman with a refined British accent who didn't want to reveal her name worries that decimating the population of one mosquito species could damage the local food chain and ecosystem. "Everything has a purpose," she says.

Aedes aegypti is the only species of mosquito in South Florida capable of spreading dengue fever.
Photo courtesy of Oxitec
Aedes aegypti is the only species of mosquito in South Florida capable of spreading dengue fever.
Oxitec's genetically modified mosquito larvae glow fluorescent green and red so researchers can track them.
Photo courtesy of Oxitec
Oxitec's genetically modified mosquito larvae glow fluorescent green and red so researchers can track them.

Mila de Mier, a real estate agent who organized this get-together and started a petition against the experiment, rattles off a litany of concerns in her thick Spanish accent. "They're going to spend our money for us to become guinea pigs," she says. "We want this place to remain natural, to be the way it is. We don't need their mosquitoes... Mr. Doyle wants to be a pioneer. He wants to be the first in the U.S. to do this type of experiment."

Biddle raises his soft voice to tamp down this dizzying powder keg of a roundtable. "Mosquito Control is not an enemy; they're good people," he says, a sentiment that everyone, including de Mier, nods in agreement with. "I'm not against this technology. What I am against is corporations like Monsanto and now this Oxitec company cutting corners and not listening to the scientific community."

Although the mosquito control department had been kicking around the idea of releasing modified skeeters for two years, it wasn't until a newspaper article published this past winter that these Conchs became aware of it. Once Biddle, de Mier, and other critics began to complain, Oxitec and Doyle held a town meeting to discuss the issue and assure residents that the plan is safe. The crew at the table says the event was little more than a sales pitch. So they began doing their own research.

That's when they learned about some troubling controversies ignited by Oxitec's experiments.

Today, the mosquito control industry is an arms race.

After World War II, when developers forged into the swamplands, control efforts were concentrated on DDT, a powerful and notorious pesticide first tested in Florida. By the 1950s, however, scientists discovered that some mosquitoes had become resistant to it. Chemists pushed on and created potent alternatives, a few of which decimated anything and everything in their path. But the birth of the environmental movement in the '60s and Rachel Carson's Silent Spring left mosquito control efforts in a quagmire. How could they kill the mosquitoes without destroying entire ecosystems or making humans ill?

"Everything is becoming more smart-bombish. It's like the military in a lot of ways," Doyle says. "In the '50s, it wasn't that complicated. You got into a truck and off you went. Now the industry is much more specialized. There are computer-aided drift models [to predict how pesticides will disperse in the wind], and you use a laser to calibrate your droplet size [for the sprays]. It's an intricate science."

Despite access to these sophisticated-sounding technologies, Doyle is in a lurch. Although there are effective chemicals for killing pests, he can't use many of them because of tighter regulations and greater public awareness, especially in an area as environmentally sound as the Keys.

The larvicide dropped by the helicopter is good for killing only mosquito larvae, not mature, flying mosquitoes. Doyle estimates that for larviciding to be effective to the point he desires, the mosquito control program would need to add 40 staff members. Efforts to kill adult mosquitoes, a tactic known as adulticiding, rely on chemicals dispersed by planes and trucks. For adulticides — some of which are derived from chrysanthemum flowers — to kill mosquitoes, a droplet actually has to hit a flying mosquito. Achieving this level of precision is pricey, and many of these chemicals are too potent to regularly dump over the Keys.

"There are some really toxic chemicals I could use but won't," Doyle says. "There are some that have a really big impact on marine life, but we're a marine sanctuary, so I'm not going to use those."

Anyway, Doyle explains, Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, the dengue-spreading species, live in and around homes, not out in wetlands and other open areas that are easy to blanket in a fog of killer chemicals and bacteria. "They're highly adaptive to human beings," he says. "They're almost like a parasite." Current efforts against this single species are focused on sending 18 full-time inspectors to thousands of properties throughout the Keys to ensure there's no standing water. If an inspector finds a few Aedes aegypti, he or she can use a handheld fogger to kill them. But to wage a successful war with shock-and-awe-like results requires a game changer.

So Oxitec's genetically modified mosquitoes are an ostensibly elegant solution to Doyle's conundrum. "I've looked at all other options for Aedes aegypti control, but they're too expensive or environmentally damaging. This sounds like the best option we have going."

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7 comments
Yuwfhan
Yuwfhan

i have not read these articles and i don't claim to know all the facts. You have made the argument that these methods are effective, but are they cheap, pheasible, and most are they safe for other species and the environment. if these mosquitoes are treated with the bacteria is there possibility of this bacteria spreading through a mosquito bite, and if it does will they even have an effect on the bite victims. just wondering

Guest
Guest

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.

mariela fajardo
mariela fajardo

Dengue is an infection produced by those arthropods (mosquito) who have in their prosboscis the disease infecting each host when they are bite by the insect, at least of thousand of cases is seeing all around of USA and the problem it is not only with the A. Aegipty, because we need to realize that in California, in St. Louis it is a common the encephalitis produced by the bite of the mosquito , the Aedes Gambia, Culex Pipiens Quinquefasciatus, Culex Pipiens Pipiens, Culex Nigripapuls, and arthropodo-borne viruses (arboviruses) it is a problem that concern all the community in general, and the CDC needs to take a inmediately decisions to prevent the spread of this virus infections, the same with the colaborations of those companies that have the chemical to remove the large population of mosquito and prevent their offsprings,(progeny) to grow and the transmission of the disease to a large populations,

Budgielover
Budgielover

I don't know about this. Mosquitoes are at the bottom of the food chain, and while they're detrimental to humans, they're a very important part of the ecosystem, eaten by birds, fish, and bats. They also help pollinate crops and plants. While people do not need mosquitoes, they love birdwatching and fishing, two things that may be impacted severely. This experiment may not be too harmful to the environment if it's only going to kill one species of bug, but it it definitely not something to be taken lightly. If there's complications, the ramifications could be enormous. Why not take some time to get third-party analysis and opinions from other environmental experts?

Jason
Jason

Every time I hear "genetically modified" it gives me the creeps. Remember Africanized bees? We may end up with mutant mosquitoes the size of pidgeons, and Key West residents still suffering from Dengue fever. By the way Natasha Marie, I demonize ALL mosquitoes. They are a pain in the a.. when you try to do anything outdoors in the summertime. I'd be willing to pay a pretty-penny for any device that would kill ALL the mosquitoes in a radius of 100 yards when I'm out in the yard. They can have the Everglades...

Natasha Marie Agramonte
Natasha Marie Agramonte

Fair and thorough analysis of this topic that isn't so quick to demonize GM mosquitoes like many people that don't understand the science are apt to do. Also addresses some of the valid concerns of Key West residents and responses to some of those concerns from mosquito experts, some of whom I'm personally familiar. Overall, an excellent article with few mistakes (only one that I caught ... Aedes aegypti is the not only species of mosquito in South Florida capable of spreading dengue virus, but it is the primary vector species in that area)

 
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