If you’re one of those people terrified by the prospect of GMOs in your food supply, you’ll likely be even more terrified by a planned experiment in the Florida Keys: releasing millions of GMO mosquitoes near a residential neighborhood to neutralize particularly nasty strains of two potentially deadly tropical diseases — dengue and chikungunya — that are growing threats in the United States.
It’s easy to see why people think this experiment with “mutant mosquitoes” could go terribly wrong. For one thing, while the experiment only specifically targets male, non-biting mosquitoes by genetically modifying them so that their offspring will not live past the larval stage, there is the possibility (as with any scientific experiment), that a few of the females could also sneak through the control process and be released into the wild as well.
That means that nobody really knows what’s going to happen when a GMO female mosquito decides to take a bite. Most likely nothing, say officials from the local mosquito control district and from Oxitec, the British biotech company heading up the experiment. However, the FDA is still not convinced and now some Florida residents say this biotech experiment could end up having a lot of wildly unintended consequences — sort of like a plot line straight out of “Jurassic Park,” in which scientists unknowingly open up a Pandora’s Box by toying around with DNA.
Perhaps that’s because the synthetic mosquito DNA includes fragments of genes from coral and cabbage (what?) as well as protein fragments from the herpes simplex virus and the E. coli bacteria. As a result, there’s already a petition with 145,000 signatures circulating on Change.org, asking Florida state officials to block the experiment. Florida residents see themselves as “guinea pigs” that were not even asked if they wanted to be part of this experiment. Even some scientists have weighed in on the matter, with British environmentalist Helen Wallace claiming that the GMO mosquito is “Dr. Frankenstein’s monster.”
One major concern is that this is the first time that genetically modified mosquitoes will be released so close to a residential neighborhood, turning Florida Keys residents (and unknowing tourists) into “guinea pigs.” That’s not exactly true. Earlier, GMO mosquitoes have been released in the Cayman Islands (non-residential) and in Brazil (residential). There were no harmful consequences in either test case, and in fact, the results were so effective that there are plans for additional larger-scale tests.
Moreover, the positives far outweigh the negatives in terms of disease control. Previous methods of controlling disease-bearing mosquitoes – mostly insecticides – are no longer effective. Mosquitoes in the Florida Keys, for example, are now resistant to four of the six insecticides used to kill them. It’s even possible to quantify these positives. With GMO mosquitoes, you kill at least 80 percent — and as many as 96 percent — of all disease-bearing mosquitoes.
And, finally, the concerns over “ripple effects” to the environment and the surrounding ecosystem are also overblown. The Change.org petition, for example, cites the potential risk to Florida Keys Bats. However, the “mutant mosquitoes” are an invasive species – they don’t belong in the ecosystem in the first place. Secondly, they only comprise a very, very small percentage of all mosquitoes in the Florida Keys – less than 1 percent, according to molecular biologist Dr. Christie Wilcox. In other words, you’re not releasing a giant swarm of “mutant mosquitoes.”
Remember — the mosquitoes that make it out of the Florida Keys are headed to — you guessed it — mainland Florida next. And there are no vaccines for either dengue or chikungunya. That makes stopping them early – when they first arrive from the Caribbean – a priority. Overall, in the weighing of risk and rewards, this biotech experiment with GMO mosquitoes is a net gain. And, as a bonus, if it cuts down the mosquito population, an invasive species no less, it would seem like a good thing.
Releasing GMO mosquitoes into the wild may appear, on the surface, to be the first-of-its-kind experiment, but is really just a continuation of other experiments that scientists are already conducting with DNA. And it’s not just modifying organisms that we already know about (such as mosquitoes) – it’s the creation of entirely new ones via the manipulation of DNA using the latest tools of synthetic biology. Like it or not, modifying DNA via biotech and creating synthetic organisms is the wave of the future.
In some cities, such as New York and San Francisco, there are even DIY “biohacking” collectives: groups of people (with or without any formal training in biology) who come to together to hack genetic code in a lab the same way programmers hack computer code. That type of experimentation would seem to represent more of a risk to society than a controlled experiment handled by a British biotech company with a track record of success. As proof of how confident they are, Oxitec has even suggested public safety demonstration cases, in which researchers reach their arms into a cage of GMO mosquitoes to prove that none of them are biting.
Ultimately, as a society we are going to continue to have these debates about “creepy” genetically modified organisms from here on out. That’s okay, as long as we are basing our decisions on science, and not on plot lines out of “Jurassic Park” or “The Butterfly Effect.” It’s good to have the debates now about GMOs, of course, but fears of Frankenstein mosquitoes are way overblown.