Dengue fever and chikungunya are two terrible diseases with no treatment and no vaccines available. If you contract one of these diseases carried by the Aedes aegypti mosquito—a species not native to the U.S. but sometimes found in the more tropical regions of the country—you just have to ride it out. With this in mind, the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District thinks it has a solution: Release genetically modified mosquitoes to kill off Aedes aegypti, starting with a neighborhood of Key West.
I’m in the Florida Keys right now, volunteering at a nonprofit urban farm, so I’m super interested in what’s going on here. I’ve gotten to speak with people on both sides of the GM-mosquito issue, as well as residents who don’t know what to think, which has only propelled me farther down this rabbit hole of interest. Here’s what I’ve found out.
What’s a GM Mosquito?
Oxitec, a British company, has been working on these GM mosquitoes for years. The idea is that only male GM Aedes aegypti mosquitoes will be released to mate with female non-GM Aedes aegypti mosquitoes. Male mosquitoes don’t bite, so humans are, in theory, safe from being bitten and having the GM DNA enter our bloodstream. Oxitec’s mosquitoes are modified with a DNA cocktail of E. coli bacteria, the herpes simplex virus, coral and cabbage. It’s projected that 0.03 percent of mosquitoes released will be female—so, a very small margin of error here—and a bite from a GM mosquito will cause the same reaction as the bite from a non-GM mosquito.
The offspring from the GM males and natural females die before reaching maturity, knocking down the population. I’m curious to know what will happen when the GM males mate with those few GM females—the same result, I hope, or we’re populating the world with GM mosquitoes.
Why the Florida Keys?
While these diseases are terrible and rampant in some parts of the world, they aren’t prevalent here in the U.S. Key West saw an outbreak of dengue fever in 2009 and 2010 with 88 people contracting the disease locally. It hasn’t been seen here since November 2010, though. Chikungunya, on the other hand, has never been acquired in the U.S..
Even with these relatively few cases to be concerned with in the Florida Keys, the FKMCD insists the release of GM mosquitoes are for the public’s safety. A warming climate and always-expanding global travel are spreading tropical diseases farther afield, and Key West, being the southernmost U.S. city, may experience these issues sooner rather than later. I’m always questioning what other impacts are around the bend, though.
Just like we’re seeing in other fields of pest-control, the Aedes aegypti are becoming pesticide resistant to four of the six chemicals currently used. At first glance, I understood that the GM mosquitoes would reduce pesticides being used to control the mosquito population. As you know, when you go around spraying pesticides to control a bug, other bugs around it are affected, too, so hearing about an alternative to pesticides made me perk up my ears. If a GM mosquito could markedly reduce pesticide use, maybe this isn’t the worst idea ever.
After talking with Michael Welber, active with the Florida Keys Environmental Coalition, I came to understand that the Aedes aegypti mosquitoes are only one of 45 species of these annoying buggers in the Keys. The GM mosquitoes will control the Aedes aegypti, but pesticide spraying will continue to carry on for the rest.
Some residents and visitors are happy about the pesticide use because it does control the mosquito population, which is a nuisance, to say the least. If these GM mosquitoes are released, we’ll not only have GM mosquitoes, but we’ll still have dangerous chemical pesticides. There will be a break in pesticide spraying, though, because the mosquito control district won’t be able to spray after the GM mosquitoes have been released, otherwise they’ll kill the GM mosquitoes before they’re able to carry out their breeding duties. This will give other mosquitoes a chance to ramp up their populations.
Reducing the population of just this one mosquito species feels a little futile considering there are so many other species out there. And getting rid of one can open the door for another to move in, like the Asian tiger mosquito, which also carries chikungunya and dengue. If that happens, I guess a GM version of this mosquito will have to be released, too. Subhead: Superbugs Creating Superbugs
Last week, I wrote about antibiotic-resistant bacteria being released from concentrated animal-feeding operations. These antibiotic-resistant bacteria are a real concern in the creation of GM mosquitoes, too. Tetracycline is used in the creation of the GM mosquitoes, which can lead to the development of antibiotic resistant bacteria in the GM insects’ guts, which can be passed into the environment, other insects, and potentially animals and humans.
Oxitec has already released 70 million of them in Brazil and the Caribbean and have not received any reports of reactions from mosquito bites or the synthetic DNA. Oxitec claims that in Brazil and the Cayman Islands, more than 90 percent of the target mosquitoes have been controlled by the GM mosquitoes, though other reports say Oxitec had no baseline population number to go by in making this claim.
The FDA (and You) in Control
The Food and Drug Administration Center for Veterinary Medicine is working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Environmental Protection Agency to decide whether the GM mosquitoes are bound for the Keys.
Whether or not you live near the Florida Keys, you should be doing your part to keep mosquitoes under control on your own property. Any ways that you help reduce this pest population can help keep the chemicals and GM bugs out of your neighborhood.