The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is currently debating a plan by British researchers to release millions of genetically modified mosquitoes in the Florida Keys to reduce mosquito populations and the diseases they spread.
Thanks to climate change and insecticide resistance, mosquito populations have exploded in the area in recent years. One species in particular, Aedes aegypti, a tiger-striped mosquito that originated in Africa, has been cause for much of the concern because the females are responsible for the spread of dengue fever and chikungunya, two deadly and painful viral diseases. Although numbers are still low, several dozen people contracted these illnesses in Florida just last year.
Researchers at the British biotech firm Oxitec think they might have a solution to Florida's mosquito problem: genetically modified mosquitoes, which produce offspring that die in the larval stage. By releasing the males of this GMO species, researchers hope they can eliminate the target mosquitoes via breeding. Males don't bite for blood like females do, reducing the risk that a human would be bitten by a genetically modified bug.
“This is essentially using a mosquito as a drug to cure disease,” Michael Doyle, executive director of the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District, told the Associated Press.
This isn't the first time that Oxitec has used its genetically modified mosquitoes to control wild mosquito populations. In 2012, the company released 3.3 million modified mosquitoes in the Cayman Islands. Almost 96 percent of targeted mosquitoes were eliminated as a result.
Despite the fears surrounding dengue and chikungunya, Florida residents are more afraid of the possibility of being bitten by a GMO mosquito. More than 130,000 people have signed a Change.org petition against the experiment.
If history has told us anything, it's that we aren't always the best at predicting what will happen when non-native species are introduced into an environment. Take, for example kudzu — a hardy vine that was imported from Japan in the late 1800s to control soil erosion but has now wiped out ecosystems of native plants with its rapid expansion. Or the cane toad, which was introduced into Hawaii to control pests in sugarcane fields but soon became a pest itself when it started eating any terrestrial animal it could fit into its giant mouth.
I could go on, but you get the idea.
So will Florida become the guinea pig state for Oxitec's GMO mosquitoes? The FDA says there will be no test until the agency has “thoroughly reviewed all the necessary information.”
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