The stuff of blockbusting science fiction films will soon take place in the Florida Keys, as the FDA potentially agrees to allow thousands of genetically modified mosquitoes unbridled reign. Bioengineers wish to release these mosquito monsters as an experiment regarding the spread and containment of viruses. But what implications could follow? How will it affect us? And what exactly are these experiments for?
As the borders expand from fruits and vegetables tampered with by science to include creatures such as insects, one can only wonder what these experiments will mean for the environment and humans alike. But genetically engineered mosquitoes are no new topic, and experiments already took place right under our noses since 1970. Face naturals covers the history and current news regarding the madhouse of modified mosquitoes.
One disease that plagues the hot, moist climates that typically cover the southern hemisphere, dengue, has a reputation of mosquitoes spreading it from person to person. As mosquitoes are the most common factor in ensuring the viral spread, one small British company, Oxitec, set out to develop a type of mosquito carrying a gene lethal to the male mosquitoes as a means of suppressing breeding ability.
This, in turn, reduces the mosquito population, thus reducing the amount of dengue cases in Brazil. This program is a more refined version of the Sterile Insect Technique or SIT. The sterile male mosquitoes eventually breed with the females, and the females eventually lay eggs that hatch larva. The larva will die from the negative gene before they have a chance to spread disease. This method of disease control has been studied and tested since the 90s.
Oxitec performed experiments in multiple countries: from Brazil, to the Cayman Islands, to Malaysia. The experiments conducted in the Cayman Islands drew a great deal of suspicion because of the low level of biosafety laws governing the area. This caused media outlets and other forms of information relay to assume that Oxitec was either hiding information or performing some other insidious plan.
Turns out that Oxitec chose to completely forgo sending authorities residing over this part of the world the necessary risk assessment before setting the mosquitoes lose. Scientists and environmentalists alike provided negative feedback regarding Oxitec’s bold decision. However, Oxitec glosses over its violations toward the local authorities in charge of this area of science and that of the public with FAQs that consistently assert its ‘confidence’ in the abilities and safety of the mosquitoes.
Despite Oxitec’s eventual publishings regarding the public’s questions (finally), we still do not see any written word ascertaining how to handle or delegate bad situations arising from the release of these insects, whether for local authorities or just the civilian population itself. And while GMO crops and GMO mosquitoes contrast greatly in why we should keep cautious about them, the long-term and unstudied results of these experiments on our world have some regrettable consequences.
As global warming continues to climb, the mosquito population follows, with more and more Americans becoming infected with dengue fever as a result. Like Brazil before it, Florida could transform into a life-sized ground for experiment in curbing the mosquito population. One environmentalist, Heather Wallace, consistently speaks against this practice for the unforeseen consequences that may occur. She states that “To open a box and let these man-made creatures fly free is a risk with dangers we haven’t even begun to contemplate.” However, all that is left of the steps to release these insects is the approval of the FDA.
Concerns also arise about how Oxitec decisively did not properly inform civilians in previous experiments, such as on the Caymen Islands and in Brazil. Oxitec failed to offer a proper level of material involving risk factors and potential error percentage to both of these areas. Not to mention, the targeted breed in Florida has gained resistance to most of the pesticides currently used to keep the population under control. With the combination of insecticide-resistant wild species mixing with genetically modified mosquitoes of the same species, what are the potential consequences? Oxitec argues that their method is perfectly safe at wiping out the population with no effects toward the general population. But we found some evidence that begs to differ.
Setting out thousands of genetically modified mosquitoes actually sounds like a pretty good idea to control disease – in theory. Much like many of the vaccines the general public opts to take these days should be a good practice. However, the lack of generational research to see how this kind of experiment will play out in the future could cause a uniquely frightening set of repercussions – especially later down the road.
GMO mosquitoes are unlike GMO foods in that mosquitoes directly cannot share their DNA with plants. Thus, the fear of our crops experiencing further affect from modified mosquitoes as well as plants is not a realistic one. However, a scientific and technical report submitted to the European Food Safety Authority identifies several risk factors that may indicate why we ought to wait about using this kind of disease control.
This report outlines some of the dangers associated with such an experiment. One of these concerns includes genetic influences over both target and non-target species. This means that, even though the current mosquitoes are designed to be sterile, one simple gene mutation transferred to an integrated specie of mosquito could result in errors. This does not only include mosquitoes, but any related insect that a mosquito may potentially breed with.
Not to mention that two different gene flow methods exist – vertical and horizontal. Vertical gene flow requires that an organism such as the mosquitoes must cross with another mosquito or another insect capable of breeding with them. Horizontal gene flow illustrates the crossing of genes from one cell to another as they duplicate. Since a number of different microbes, specifically bacteria, can easily exchange genetic information with other microbes, this can lead to further mutations of other kinds of cells. The worst part about that? Cells can transfer genetic information, even across species.
This kind of mutation or genetic transfer can lead to a whole new level of issues, making horizontal gene flow the scariest part of the modified mosquito manifestation. It could lead to a more potent or contagious bacteria or virus, mutations in other species of insects – for example, from consuming the modified mosquitoes, or it could lead to other potentially harmful effects on the environment and those who inhabit it. Bear in mind, DNA on a cellular level is transferable to living animals, plants, soil, and water.
Additionally, some evidence suggests that a few of the larvae bred from the wild mosquitoes and the genetically modified mosquitoes can survive past the stage at which Oxitec advertises that they should die. This means around three to four percent of that population. When in the presence of the antibiotic tetracycline, this percent could rise to about fifteen percent of the total larva mosquito population. In other words, some of these experimental insects could still slip through the cracks, grow to adulthood, and breed with other mosquitoes.
As mentioned before, this is a good idea in theory. But in practice? This kind of procedure is fairly young, and the effects of the first mosquito experiment have not yet been thoroughly tested on the generation as a whole. Now, multiple loads of these mosquitoes have been released world wide – without enough time to pass to record and fully understand the potential consequences that they have over time. And while we may not see the results as of now, they could easily rear their ugly heads later. As with vaccines of current, genetically modified mosquitoes may provide a viable option for disease control, but at what costs? And where are the long-term studies to prove that they are okay? When do we really discover the repercussions?
Do you think it is safe to let lose genetically modified mosquitoes? What else have you heard about it that we did not mention? Whether you believe it is a dangerous experiment or think it is a beneficial way to lower disease rates, we want to know how you came to this conclusion. Leave a comment below to offer your opinion and information about the genetically modified mosquitoes and their release in America to keep the conversation going.
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