As much as 130 Florida Keys areas have been chosen for the discharge of genetically modified mosquitoes

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An Aedes aegypti mosquito stands on a person's arm.  A UK biotech company is expected to start releasing genetically modified versions of the invasive bugs in April, with the aim of eventually eradicating them or reducing the species significantly.

An Aedes aegypti mosquito stands on a person’s arm. A UK biotech company is expected to start releasing genetically engineered versions of the invasive bugs in April, with the aim of eventually eradicating them or significantly reducing the species.

AP / Miami Herald file

By April, an unconventional and controversial experiment could release millions of genetically engineered mosquitoes in dozens of areas up and down the Florida Keys to reduce or eliminate an invasive species of insect that is responsible for transmitting deadly diseases such as zika and dengue and Chikungunya.

The Florida Keys Mosquito Control District this week announced a broad and vaguely planned range of uses for the lab-designed mosquitoes – neighborhoods from mile marker 10 to 93.

The study is being carried out by the British biotech company Oxitec. It’s a method approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the State of Florida, and the Mosquito Control District’s five-person board of directors to try to eradicate or significantly reduce the local population of Aedes aegypti mosquitoes.

Despite the approval of several authorities, many Keys residents oppose the project. A group of around 20 people protested the trial outside the Murray Nelson Government and Cultural Center in Key Largo on Sunday.

Their stated concerns included the possible unintended consequences of introducing a genetically modified species into the local environment and Oxitec’s track record of conducting similar trials in other countries.

“Our community is about to experiment with a man-made species that many recognized genetic engineering experts have objected to,” said Barry Wray, executive director of the local Florida Keys Environmental Coalition, on Wednesday.

However, Oxitec claims that trials of its genetically engineered mosquitoes in countries such as Brazil, the Cayman Islands, and Panama have shown the company’s technology has proven successful in reducing Aedes agypti mosquitoes without sacrificing the flora or fauna of those locations damage.

“This is not an attempt at an unknown technology. It is a demonstration in the US of a technology that has been shown elsewhere to be safe and effective, “said Ross Bethell, Oxitec spokesman, in an email on Wednesday.

IMG_1600.jpg Jessie Moreno and Robert Cartwright hold signs during a protest outside the Murray Nelson Government and Cultural Center in Key Largo on Sunday, February 21, 2021. The protest related to a plan by a British biotech company to release millions of genetically modified mosquitoes within the US Florida Keys to combat the invasive Aedes aegypti species. David Goodhue/dgoodhue@miamiherald.com

It is planned to place 130 boxes with millions of genetically modified male eggs in the trial areas. Water is added and the male beetles fly among the local population and mate with the female.

According to Oxitec, a “death mechanism” built into the mosquitoes should ensure that no viable female offspring are created when they mate. The male offspring pass the “self-limiting gene” on to half of their offspring. Female mosquitoes are the only ones that bite and feed on humans.

Mosquito Control District spokesman Chad Huff said about 130 boxes will be placed in the yards of Keys-based volunteers over the course of the project, which is expected to last 28 weeks.

The process will begin “no earlier than April,” Huff said.

David Goodhue covers the Florida Keys and South Florida for FLKeysNews.com and the Miami Herald. Before joining the Herald, he reported on Congress, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Department of Energy in Washington, DC. He is a graduate of the University of Delaware.

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