A battle is brewing in the Florida Keys. They are bloodsuckers that spread diseases. The struggle to turn them off goes down in a science lab.
Scientists have been experimenting for a few months to stop the invasive Aedes aegypti mosquito. Your weapon of choice? A genetically modified mosquito.
However, some environmental advocates question the strategy.
That year, the Florida Keys had a dengue outbreak for the first time in 10 years. It gives new urgency to the controversial efforts to get rid of the Aedes aegypti, which are harder to combat.
Chad Huff of the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District says the mosquito is resilient.
“The Aedes aegypti is a very hearty mosquito that lives entirely on humans,” explained Huff.
The species is native to a small part of Africa but is somehow common around the world, including Florida. The mosquito carries diseases such as dengue fever, zika and yellow fever.
The Florida Keys Mosquito Control District has had a long, ongoing battle with the mosquito. So far nothing seems to be really sticking.
“Insect pests are becoming resistant to the traditional tools used to fight them,” said Meredith Fensom, a scientist at Oxitec.
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The first line of attack: larvicide. If that fails, do you plan on B? Adult killing. But what happens if this no longer works either?
Oxitec was brought in to help the mosquito control district stop the spread of the insects. The company’s approach? Fight mosquitoes with mosquitoes. The mosquito used in battle is genetically modified.
“Oxitec will release our non-biting male mosquitoes for our mosquito project. No male mosquito bite. They have never been bitten by a male mosquito”, explained Fensom.
This is how the mosquitoes are genetically modified:
A self-limiting gene is first inserted into certain eggs that later transform into a new strain of mosquitoes.
Only male mosquitoes of this strain are released.
When the GMO mosquitoes mate with the invasive female mosquitoes, they pass on the self-limiting gene. The female offspring of these encounters cannot survive.
“That way, the wild mosquito population has declined rapidly and very drastically,” said Fensom. “In some of our recent projects in Brazil we were able to reach around 95% of the wild mosquito population of Aedes aegypti in just 12 cases.” Weeks. “
About 750 million of the male mosquitoes are released. The exact location is still being determined.
“When we start we will have our male mosquito eggs in small boxes and we just put water in the boxes and in about a week these mosquitoes will be released on their own,” said Fensom.
According to Oxitec, the GMO mosquitoes decide when to get out of the box, and these boxes are refilled or replaced about every week.
Mosquito control officials said the Environmental Protection Agency and other government agencies approve the program.
“A lot of people saw this in a lot of different ways and they decided, yeah, go ahead, let’s see if it works the way it should,” explained Huff.
Meanwhile, some are concerned about the environmental impact of this project.
More than 235,000 people signed a Change.org petition to stop the plan. And several stakeholders, like the Center for Food Safety, want to reject it, criticizing the EPA for approving the plan.
The group released a statement in response to the project:
“Neither EPA, FKMCD, nor Oxitec know how this unprecedented release of millions of GE mosquitoes will affect Monroe County or the state of Florida after the EPA has refused to issue an environmental statement. It is unlawful and utterly irresponsible to proceed with this Jurassic Park-like experiment before the EPA does their most basic environmental review to determine the negative impact these GE mosquitoes have on public health, endangered and threatened species, and the environment in the Florida Keys can have . ”
Oxitec scientists say their strategy will not harm the environment.
“One of the great things about this technology is how environmentally friendly it is. We don’t put harmful chemicals into the environment,” said Fensom. “We’re targeting an invasive, disease-spreading mosquito and beneficial insects like bees and butterflies unharmed.”
The EPA issued this statement to NBC 6:
“Prior to granting experimental use permits for field trials of the use of genetically modified Aedes aegypti mosquitoes as a means of reducing mosquito populations to protect public health from mosquito-borne diseases, the EPA conducted a comprehensive risk assessment based on the best available scientific evidence and was approved as Publicly Considered The EPA does not anticipate any adverse effects from the study on animals in the environment. Oxitec will need to monitor and sample the mosquito population in the treatment areas on a weekly basis to determine how well the product is for mosquito control and to confirm that the gene is altering is traits disappearing from the male Aedes aegypti mosquito population over time. The EPA has also retained the right to terminate the EUP at any time during the 24 month period if unforeseen outcomes occur. The courts have consistently Ruled that Congress did not intend the NEPA requirements (either an environmental assessment or an environmental impact statement) for EPA registration of pesticides under the Federal Insecticides, Fungicides and Rodenticides Act. “
Mosquito control officials say the program will take place early next year, before mosquito season starts.