Pros and Cons of Releasing Genetically Modified Mosquitoes in Florida - 2020
Let's take a look at the pros and cons of genetically modified mosquitoes and why some experts advocate releasing them into the wild. This discussion is particularly relevant in warmer states within the continental U.S., as officials in Florida plan to release 750 million genetically modified mosquitoes in 2021 to reduce local mosquito populations. The release is to fight mosquito-borne illnesses like Zika. Naturally, many environmentalists are worried about the possible unintentional side-effects that releasing modified flying insects could have on the greater ecosystem.
The Pros of Releasing Genetically Modified Mosquitoes
Diseases like dengue and the Zika virus are transmitted by the Aedes aegypti mosquito. Researchers and health officials aim to reduce the overall population of these airborne pests by interrupting their breeding cycle.
To that end, the company Oxitec created genetically modified male Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, labeled OX5034. Only female mosquitoes bite and spread disease, so the benefit of releasing 750 million genetically modified male mosquitoes is to reduce Aedes aegypti mosquito populations over time, according to the company and the US Environmental Agency. This would subsequently reduce their ability to transmit illnesses to humans.
This hopeful reduction stems from the fact that the OX5034 males were bred with a special protein. Once these genetically engineered Aedes aegypti mosquitoes mate with females in the wild, this protein kills off female offspring before they develop into adults capable of biting and spreading disease.
Oxitec’s innovation is backed up by studies and the success the company had in Brazil with its methods being both effective and non-harmful to the environment. Essentially, the pros of releasing genetically modified mosquitoes in Florida include less risk from diseases like dengue and Zika along with fewer mosquitoes overall to disturb people as they go about their lives.
The Cons of Genetically Modified Mosquitoes
Critics of genetically modified mosquitoes, which Florida plans to release over a two-year period (750 million of them), point to the unintended consequences that letting modified pests out into the wild may cause. While no one wants a Zika outbreak Key West, environmentalists worry that genetically modified male mosquitoes could give rise to some type of hybrid pest resistant to insecticides or wreak unforeseen havoc on the ecosystem.
Change.org has already collected almost a quarter of a million signatures protesting plans to "release genetically modified mosquitoes into the fragile environment of the Florida Keys and Texas." This petition highlights how those signing believe the British biotech firm Oxitec used an FDA "loophole" when applying for an "animal bug" patent. Details outlined in this petition also raise concerns about rushing the approval process, along with issues other countries have had with GMO mosquitoes, plus effects beyond mosquitoes themselves (like harming Florida's native bat population).
As of now, it seems the release will go ahead with the goal of delivering on the promised benefits of reducing the population of Aedes aegypti mosquitoes.
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