Environmental group Friends of the Earth, one of Oxitech's harsher critics, says the company has not "been open and honest with the local communities about the possible risks its technology pose." Helen Wallace of GeneWatch UK took that sentiment a step further when she said in a statement that Oxitec's Cayman experiment shows that the "British scientific establishment is acting like the last bastion of colonialism, using an overseas territory as a private lab."

In addition to these transparency complaints, opponents fret over a few lab-based studies showing that 3 percent of the Oxitec mosquitoes survived into adulthood despite possessing the self-destruct gene. Oxitec CEO Hadyn Parry tells New Times that this hasn't happened when they're released in the wild, nor is it likely that such mosquitoes can live long enough to transmit diseases. As for Oxitec's opaqueness, Parry says the company never denies an interview and welcomes reporters into its laboratories and has even shared confidential data with activist groups to quell further uproar.

According to Parry, the Cayman experiment worked well. He says the wild Aedes aegypti population plummeted by 80 percent after the Oxitec mosquitoes were released. Final data from the experiment has not been published in a journal. Parry says they are undergoing the peer review process for potential publication in Nature Biotechnology later this year.

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.

Parry insists the company doesn't have any special interest in doing a release in the Florida Keys; it's Keys Mosquito Control that is pushing for the experiment. "From our point of view, we're working in a number of different places," he says. "We don't have a hit list saying that we'd like to work in this place or that place. If someone is interested and says, 'Hey, can you help us?' we say, 'Yes, of course we can.'"

The Keys is the only area in the States in talks with Oxitec about the use of modified mosquitoes. Even though the Keys are the sole site of locally acquired cases of dengue, some veteran mosquito experts in Florida are surprised that Doyle is picking up his predecessor's plan.

"Given that [Doyle is] brand new to the job, not even a year on, and is looking to take this step... yeah, we were surprised," says Phil Lounibos of the Florida Medical Entomology Laboratory, a Vero Beach-based facility that's part of the University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. "It's surprising because there is not supporting background evidence that we've seen showing that this will solve the dengue problem."

Even if the Cayman experiment did reduce Aedes aegypti populations by 80 percent, as Oxitec says, that might not be a great enough reduction to control the spread of dengue. Lounibos points to Singapore, where mosquito control efforts are extensive yet dengue persists. "Many people don't doubt that the Oxitec method can reduce abundance of the mosquito that carries dengue," he says. "But it doesn't necessarily mean that it will control dengue."

Lastly, Lounibos says, Oxitec's mosquitoes are not a "self-sustaining technology," meaning the Keys might end up making hefty payments to Oxitec to keep a steady stream of modified mosquitoes breeding with whatever population of wild females remains. "They're going to have to keep releasing these things," he says. "They're considering investing in this without knowing if the technology will get the end results."

Doyle has set aside $125,000 to cover the initial overhead of an experiment — converting a trailer into a lab, setting and monitoring traps, and paying for similar expenses. Doyle expects to spend half a million on Oxitec eggs the first full year, with the price dropping by half the second year. For the experiment, Oxitec has agreed to provide him with its mosquitoes for free during the first six months, and with good reason.

A successful test could provide a new customer for the fledgling company. More important, pulling off a release in the Keys would go a long way in removing the stereotype that genetically modified mosquitoes are a creepy, sci-fi solution. A release in the United States is a proverbial golden seal of approval, a mark of acceptance from one of the most stringent, red-taped regulatory bureaucracies in the world. Genetically modified mosquitoes could be pitched as a designer solution to dengue that doesn't need to be dropped from helicopters or dispersed from handheld foggers by uniformed men.

There's just one holdup. Genetically modified mosquitoes are so technologically advanced that no federal agency has claimed to have the jurisdiction to give Oxitec final approval for a release. Doyle likens them to a hover car: If Ford were to suddenly make a flying car available to consumers, would the Federal Aviation Administration, which regulates aircraft, have oversight, or would the Department of Transportation, which regulates roadways? Oxitec's proposal to release its creation has bounced through the USDA, the EPA, and the CDC, all of whom have claimed not to have jurisdiction, Doyle says. Now the FDA is reviewing Oxitec's application for what's called an "investigational new animal drug." Doyle says the FDA's decision could come in a few months or drag on for two years. If the agency ultimately denies the application, he could theoretically release Oxitec mosquitoes anyway because there's no law against it — but he says he wouldn't.

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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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