Genetically Engineered Mosquitoes to Be Released in the Florida Keys

Image by Егор Камелев from Pixabay 

It sounds like the plot of a Hollywood movie, but it’s something that is actually happening. Genetically engineered mosquitoes have been made in a lab and they are set to be released sometime in 2021 or 2022 in the Florida Keys. The reason for such an event is part of an experiment to help save the lives of humans and animals alike.

Yes, you heard right. This is all part of an unusual plan to help save lives.

The plan received final approval from local authorities, against the objection of many local residents and a coalition of environmental advocacy groups. The proposal had already won state and federal approval. The plan consists of releasing over 750 million genetically modified mosquitoes into the air.

As if the ongoing global coronavirus pandemic going on isn’t enough, residents of the state of Florida now have to worry about a potentially dangerous situation with these engineered insects taking over and causing havoc to the lives of locals and tourists in the area. As we stated previously, this experiment is meant to help save lives. The way officials plan on going about that is by introducing a new species of genetically modified insects that die before they can cause harm or damage.

“With all the urgent crises facing our nation and the State of Florida — the Covid-19 pandemic, racial injustice, climate change — the administration has used tax dollars and government resources for a Jurassic Park experiment,” said Jaydee Hanson, policy director for the International Center for Technology Assessment and Center for Food Safety, in a statement released on Wednesday, August 19.

Another reason for the experiment is to try to control the Aedes aegypti. These mosquitoes live in tropical, subtropical, and in some temperate climates. They are the main type of mosquito that spread Zika, dengue, chikungunya, and other viruses. Because Ae. aegypti mosquitoes live near and prefer to feed on people, they are more likely to spread these viruses than other types of mosquitoes.

The use of the genetically modified mosquito is a viable alternative to spraying insecticides to control the Aedes aegypti.

The aedes aegypti mosquito. Image source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Public Health Image Library | WikiCommons

In 2009 and 2010, local outbreaks of dengue fever spread by the Aedes aegypti left the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District desperate for new options. Local control efforts to contain the Aedes aegypti with larvicide and pesticide had been largely ineffective. Despite repeated efforts from aerial, truck and backpack spraying to the use of mosquito-eating fish to try to control the spread, the Zika virus was still a problem in this area.

Florida’s government issued an Experimental Use Permit in June after seven state agencies unanimously approved the project. The approval has taken ten years to obtain. The mosquito, named OX5034, has been altered to produce female offspring that die in the larval stage, well before hatching and growing large enough to bite and spread disease. Only the female mosquito bites for blood, which she needs to mature her eggs. Males feed only on nectar, and are thus not a carrier for disease. 

The mosquito is also approved to be released into Harris County, Texas, beginning in 2021, according to Oxitec, the US-owned, British-based company that developed the genetically modified organism (GMO). The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) granted Oxitec’s request after years of investigating the impact of the genetically altered mosquito on human and environmental health.

The EPA permit requires Oxitec to notify state officials 72 hours before releasing the mosquitoes and conduct ongoing tests for at least 10 weeks to ensure none of the female mosquitoes reach adulthood. The new male mosquito, OX5034, is programmed to kill only female mosquitoes, with males surviving for multiple generations and passing along the modified genes to subsequent male offspring.

The plan has many critics, including nearly 240,000 people who signed a petition on slamming Oxitec’s plan to use US states “as a testing ground for these mutant bugs”.The Aedes aegypti is invasive to southern Florida, and are commonly found in urban areas where they live in standing pools of water. In many areas, including the Florida Keys, they have developed a resistance to pesticides.