The first genetically modified mosquitoes have been released in the United States.
A highly debated project launched this week in Florida to reduce the population of disease carrying mosquitoes, Aedes aegypti.
20 million genetically modified mosquitoes will be released over six different locations in the Florida Keys this year.
Aedes aegypti mosquitoes
Aedes aegypti mosquitoes make up only 4% of the mosquito population on the string of islands, but are responsible for all mosquito-borne disease transmitted to humans, states Florida Keys Mosquito Control District.
These mosquitoes have white markings on their legs and prefer warm tropical climates. They are responsible for the spread of several viruses including yellow fever virus, dengue, Zika, and heartworm disease to dogs.
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British biotech company Oxitec, creator of the mosquitoes and leader of the project, hopes to reduce the amount of disease carrying mosquitoes by introducing genetically modified non-biting male mosquitoes.
The hope is the males will mate with wild females and pass on a gene that will kill female larvae.
Females are the only ones that bite and feed on humans and animals, so the plan is to kill off the females. Since males only feed on nectar they will not be killed, but instead will continue to pass on the gene to help reduce the population.
Scientists will monitor the trial with capture boxes that will allow them to see how far males are traveling and if females are being killed off.
Even though this is the first release of the genetically modified mosquitoes in the United States, Oxitec has field-tested the insects in Brazil, which they claim was a success.
It is an alternative to harmful insecticides, which many mosquitoes are building a resistance to.
Last year, a dengue outbreak occurred in the Keys and was the final straw for Mosquito Control. They reached out to Oxitec for an innovative solution to eliminate the harmful pests.
Andrea Leal, executive director of Florida Keys Mosquito Control District, said, “Dengue was something we worried about in other areas. Once that came to our doorstep we’ve seen other diseases. Dengue for us last year and Zika in Miami-Dade. This is really why we’re looking at these new tools for mosquito control.”
If all goes as planned, 750 million mosquitoes could be released.
While this project sounds like a great idea, not all Florida residents are happy about it.
Their major concerns are the impact it will have on the Florida ecosystem and the risk of a genetically modified species developing.
One opposing group called it “a Jurassic Park experiment.”
Residents claim they have many unanswered questions and don’t feel confident that the new mosquitoes won’t cause harm to the environment or people.
“People here in Florida do not consent to the genetically engineered mosquitoes or to being human experiments,” stated Barry Wray, executive director of the Florida Keys Environmental Coalition.
But Oxitec reassures residents there is nothing to worry about.
“Oxitec mosquitoes have been determined to be safe and to pose no threat to humans or the environment by multiple regulatory agencies, including both the EPA and the FDA in the U.S., as well as in Brazil where we have conducted numerous successful field demonstrations.” said Meredith Fensom, head of global public affairs for Oxitec.
“As our mosquitoes are safe, non-toxic, nonallergenic, non-biting, and self-limiting, there is no risk posed by them.”Whizzco