Millions of genetically modified mosquitoes may soon be released in the Florida Keys to combat 2 viral diseases if all goes according to plan for a group of British researchers.

Dengue and chikungunya are both extremely painful diseases transmitted by mosquitoes. Dengue, or “break-bone fever,” infects more than 50 million people a year with muscle aches, and its counterpart, chikungunya, causes joint pain and agonizing contortions. Insecticides have been useless against the disease-carrying pests, forcing researchers to come up with new ways of controlling the disease’s transmission. A promising new plan involving genetically modified mosquitoes may do the trick, but only if it can get approval from the Food and Drug Administration first.

British biotech firm Oxitec has been developing a special breed of male mosquito over the past 10 years, which when mated, will prevent wild females from producing larva. This will then subsequently stop the spread of dengue and chikungunya. “This is essentially using a mosquito as a drug to cure disease,” said Michael Doyle, executive director of the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District.

The striped mosquitoes that spread dengue and chikungunya are called Aedes aegypti, and they are resistant to 4 of the 6 insecticides that are meant to kill them. If left to nature, the mutant pests could travel into the Florida mainland and throughout the continental US, potentially spreading the diseases. The Keys’ communities have tried tackling the issue by fumigating areas of still water where the insects breed, but with little success. If the FDA allows the mosquitoes to be released, it won’t be the first time for Oxitec. Since 2012, the firm has used its mutants in several residential neighborhoods, and after setting free 3.3 million of them in the Cayman Islands, more than 96% of the native disease-carrying mosquitoes were wiped out. Similar success was demonstrated in Brazil as well.

But not everyone is comfortable with the idea of letting genetically modified mosquitoes loose into the wild. Southern Florida locals have started a petition on Change.org to prevent the release of the genetically modified pests. “This mosquito is Dr. Frankenstein’s monster, plain and simple,” Helen Wallace, a British environmentalist told The New Yorker in 2012. “To open a box and let these man-made creatures fly free is a risk with dangers we haven’t even begun to contemplate.”

Reference

  1. Lyman B. Swarm of GMO mosquitoes set to fly in south Florida. Daily Tech website. January 27, 2015. http://www.dailytech.com/Swarm+of+GMO+Mosquitoes+Set+to+Fly+in+South+Florida/article37105.htm.
  2. Millions of genetically modified mosquitoes could be released. USA Today website. January 26, 2015. http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation-now/2015/01/26/millions-gmo-mosquitoes-florida-keys/22341491.
  3. St. Fleur N. The genetically modified mosquito bite. The Atlantic website. January 27, 2015. http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2015/01/Genetically-Modified-Mosquitoes-May-Be-Released-in-Florida-Keys/384859.