The Food and Drug Administration is reviewing a proposal from a British biotechnology firm asking to release millions of genetically modified mosquitoes.
If the FDA green lights the "new animal drug" application, quaint and quirky Key West will become the hub of controversial experiment.
On the surface, the whole scenario sounds like something from the opening chapter of a Michael Crichton novel. Oxitec, the British biotech firm, has genetically modified a single species of mosquitoes so that they self destruct soon after hatching. The idea is that by releasing only genetically modified male mosquitoes -- only females bite humans -- the disease-spreading pests will breed with the natural females and spawn future generations that die before reaching adulthood.
The sole reason mosquito control folks in the Keys want to go forward with the experiment is because they think it can eliminate the threat of dengue fever -- a nasty disease, but one that hasn't reared its face in the Keys since November 2010.
As detailed in this week's cover story, local Conchs and environmental groups around the world aren't buying it. They accuse Oxitec of carrying out its three previous experiments without properly informing the public of potential risks posed by its mutant mosquitoes. They're concerned that eradicating one species of mosquitoes could have unintended consequences on the food chain and ecosystem. They've even sent a letter to Gov. Rick Scott asking him to block such an experiment.
It's understandable that people are freaked out by the potential of having their blood sucked by a genetically modified creature concocted in European laboratories. There is, however, potential that these mosquitoes could help fight diseases that have plagued mankind for centuries and continue to kill thousands in lesser developed countries.
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The scientific community doesn't doubt that Oxitec's approach will drive down mosquito populations. What's unclear is whether doing so will actually improve public health.
Should Florida be one of the testing grounds to help answer that question? That's for the FDA to decide.