USA TODAY US Edition
Genetically modified mosquitoes to buzz in Fla.
The release of thousands of the insects, a first in the U.S., aims to help control the dangerous pest’s population. But critics argue that the plan could have unintended consequences for the ecological system.
On Thursday morning, workers from a British company placed basketballsize cardboard boxes into six yards in the Florida Keys.
Then they added water.
In a week or so, 12,000 male Aedes aegypti mosquitoes will – one by one – begin buzzing out of each box, the first genetically modified mosquitoes to be released in the United States.
Local officials argue the trial is necessary at a time when pesticides are increasingly ineffective against these dangerous pests. A 2016 vote on the project indicated a solid majority of support in most of the surrounding counties.
“At the end of the day, our hope is to be able to control this mosquito more efficiently and keep our population below any sort of disease transmission threshold,” said Andrea Leal, executive director of the Florida Keys Mosquito District. “Our toolbox for Aedes aegypti control is shrinking, unfortunately, and that’s making us think outside of the box.”
But yearslong opposition to the test project continues, with critics arguing it could have unintended consequences and that their concerns have not been adequately addressed by the government or Oxitec, the British biotechnology company releasing them.
“When you disrupt an ecological system whether it’s a small disruption or a big disruption, you’re going to have an impact,” said Dana Perls, program manager at Friends of the Earth, a Washington, D.C.-based environmental advocacy group that opposes the project.
“History has taught us time and time again that we need serious precaution with new genetic engineering experiments and technologies,” Perls continued. “Once you release this genetic material into the wild, you can’t recall it.”
Male mosquitoes don’t bite or cause disease, but females do. And nothing is better at finding female mosquitoes than male mosquitoes, Leal said.
In this case, the aim is to use those released male Aedes aegypti to track down mates and lay eggs. The mosquitoes of both genders have been genetically modified so that any female offspring will die before reaching adulthood. With each successive generation, there will be fewer biting females. Eventually, the population will crash entirely.
The insects also have been given a gene that fluoresces under certain lights, so scientists can easily identify and track descendants of the altered