Biotech firm Oxitec has released genetically engineered mosquito eggs in six locations Florida last month. In next three months these mosquitoes are expected to emerge somewhere in the Florida Keys and miraculously disarm the existing natural disease-causing ones as per an experiment sanctioned by the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District (FKMCD) board. However, residents and the Center for Food Safety and the Florida Keys Environmental Coalition are wary about this experiment.
The Florida Keys is filled with mosquitoes. The Aedes aegypti species is a particularly harmful one as it causes infections in humans including dengue fever, yellow fever and the Zika virus, all of which are sometimes fatal. The FKMCD board oversees controlling mosquito populations and has reportedly spent up to a million dollars a year. This year, it is trying to reduce the mosquito population, using the Oxitec genetic modification approach.
The board says that they have been following the progress of Oxitec from the past decade. The company says that it has been successful in experiments that were conducted in the following countries: Cayman Islands, Panama, Brazil, and Malaysia. It claims that the mosquito population fell by about 90 percent in these countries and islands.
Local residents and environmental agencies are not convinced. There have been no studies on the long-term impact of mosquitoes that have been genetically modified. There is no information available about the impact of these mosquitoes on the environment and the natural ecosystem.
According to Nature, 12,000 genetically engineered male mosquitoes will hatch in the next twelve weeks. The company Oxitec says that these mosquitoes will mate with normal female mosquitoes found in the Keys. The male mosquitoes will pass a specific gene to their female offspring which will kill them before they mature. Male offspring could survive but they will not spread diseases as they survive on plant juices.
The female Aedes Aegypti mosquito requires protein from human blood to fertilize her eggs. This is the reason why female mosquitoes bite while male do not and when the females look for blood to survive, they inadvertently pass on lethal diseases.
It cannot be foreseen whether these genetically modified male mosquitoes will mate with and kill female mosquitoes in the Florida Keys, but any genetically modified natural organism has the potential to disrupt natural balance and ecosystems.