Birth Control For Insects: Genetically Engineered Mosquitoes in the Florida Keys?


Leszek.Leszczynski/CC BY 1.0

Today, the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District, is holding a meeting about potential trials involving the release of genetically modified male mosquitoes into the delicate ecosystem of the Florida Keys. The stated purpose of the trials is to investigate controlling the spread of dengue fever.

The company behind the technology, British firm Oxitec, explains that sterile males would be released to compete with wild males for female insects, which would then have no offspring and reduce the population of the next generation. Food & Water Watch, which is strongly opposed to the project, clarifies that the males are not actually sterile—they reproduce, but they pass on a lethal gene that prevents the offspring from ever reaching adulthood.

Oxitec has described the technology as “birth control for insects.” (Seems like post-birth abortion might be more appropriate?)

"Dangerously Misguided"
There's plenty of opposition to the idea, which would seem to combine the risks of two unpredictable worlds: when non-native species are introduced into new environments and when genetically engineered organisms are released into the wild, often with unforeseen consequences.

In the case of plants, one of those consequences is superweeds. I'd hate to find out what the mosquito parallel for a superweed would be.

“We cannot stress strongly enough how dangerously misguided this application is. Oxitec hopes to use the neighborhoods and precious ecosystem of the Keys as their private, for-profit laboratory," said Wenonah Hauter, Food & Water Watch executive director, said in a statement. "This feels much more like Oxitec testing its living, breeding technology than a serious attempt to control disease, and the people of Florida deserve protection."

Reviews are still pending from both federal and state agencies. Food & Water Watch is calling on government agencies not to approve this technology, the risk assessment for which it says Germany's Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology called "scientifically deficient" and said it made "questionable pivotal scientific assertion[s]."

“There are better, safer ways to control Dengue and agricultural pests – we don’t need expensive GE insects. Oxitec badly needs FDA approval to keep their finances flowing," said Hauter. "This is why the company downplays any concerns raised, but those concerns are still there and growing with time. The Federal Government must step in and prevent this unnecessary and risky trial.”

Tags: Diseases | Florida | Genetic Engineering | Insects

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