Genetically Modified Mosquitoes Could Be Released in Keys This Spring

Scientists hope to wipe out dengue-carrying Aedes aegypti mosquitoes (left) using genetically modified bugs with green-and-red glowing larvae.
Scientists hope to wipe out dengue-carrying Aedes aegypti mosquitoes (left) using genetically modified bugs with green-and-red glowing larvae.
Courtesy of Oxitec

In the lab, the genetically modified mosquito larvae glow green and red to help researchers track them. The bugs' DNA has been tweaked with a killer gene that will wipe out the next generation of blood-suckers before they can latch onto humans. Millions of the scientifically created bugs are released into the wild, in theory putting a stop to wretched diseases such as dengue fever and chikungunya.

That may sound like the premise of a Michael Crichton plot, but in fact the GMO mosquitoes have already been released en masse in Brazil and the Cayman Islands. Now, researchers hope to do the same in the Florida Keys as early as this spring.

See also: Can Genetically Modified Mosquitoes Keep Dengue Fever Away From Key West?

The researchers from British firm Oxitec have been breeding the specially designed mosquitoes in Marathon for years. They've now applied for FDA approval to release their mosquitoes this spring, with the aim of cutting down the population of Aedes aegypti, the type of mosquito that carries the debilitating dengue fever.

"This is essentially using a mosquito as a drug to cure disease," Michael Doyle, the executive director of the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District, tells the AP.

The researchers say the mosquitoes are perfectly safe; they release only modified male mosquitoes, which don't bite humans, unlike their female counterparts. When the GM males breed, the next generation is born with a faulty gene that quickly kills them.

The process has already been successfully used in Brazil and the Caymans, where 96 percent of the targeted mosquitoes were killed, Oxitec says.

Critics, though, worry about the unforeseen consequences of dropping millions of human-altered creatures into an ecosystem.

New Times profiled Oxitec's efforts in the Keys two years ago. Here's an overview of the case against the plan:

Oxitec, which employs about 40 people, has consistently come under fire from environmental organ­izations, anti-GM groups, and academics for its lack of transparency when carrying out experiments. So far, the company has released mosquitoes in Brazil in 2011, Malaysia in 2010, and the Cayman Islands -- where more than 3 million genetically modified mosquitoes have been dispatched since 2008.

Few peer-reviewed scientific journal articles have been published demonstrating the effectiveness and safety of genetically modified mosquitoes when released in the wild. Articles that have been published include an Oxitec staffer among the authors, and there are no independent, third-party studies under way.

Opponents, including the Conchs at the real estate office, hone in on the Cayman experiment because it's the furthest along. About four years ago, Oxitec and the Cayman mosquito control authority collaborated on an experiment without providing much information to the scientific community or local residents about the release. In November 2010, Oxitec took the stage at a medical conference in Atlanta and delivered findings from what was the first field trial of genetically modified mosquitoes. Some researchers in the crowd were surprised that, all of a sudden, a British biotech company was announcing it had released its mutant mosquitoes in the wild without consulting the larger research community.

In response, the prestigious journal Science published a news article that took a biting tone as it questioned whether the company had rushed to release its mosquitoes in the Cayman Islands, and suggested that the hastiness and off-the-radar style of the experiment had strained Oxitec's ties with funders, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. This past January, researchers at Germany's Max Planck Institute published a paper in the journal PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases implying that Oxitec exploited a weak regulatory environment in the Cayman Islands to do the experiment with minimal oversight and little effort to inform the locals that millions of genetically modified organisms were being let loose in their back yard.

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."

But the company insists that such fears are overblown and that its work in other countries has been completely successful. "We are confident of the safety of our mosquito, as there's no mechanism for any adverse effect on human health," a company spokesperson tells the AP. "The proteins are nontoxic and nonallergenic."

The Keys Mosquito Control District is awaiting the FDA's ruling on the bugs before releasing any of Oxitec's mosquitoes into the wild.

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