You may be familiar with the controversial concept of genetically modified crops or food, but did you know that insects can also be genetically modified?
That’s what’s happening in Brazil at the moment and it may be coming to the United States, soon.
According to Britain’s The Independent, scientists in Jacobina, Brazil, a small farming community, have released the world’s largest-ever swarm of genetically-modified mosquitoes in an effort to combat dengue fever, a mosquito-borne viral disease with severe flu-like symptoms. Dengue fever is a leading cause of illness and death in Brazil, and the most severe form of it can lead to death. Brazil reported 1.4 million cases of dengue fever last year.
Supporters of the GM mosquitoes say it avoids the use of pesticides, which can be harmful to the environment.
“We need to provide alternatives because the system we have now in Brazil doesn’t work,” said Aldo Malavasi, president of Moscamed, a Brazilian company that’s raising and testing the GM mosquitoes in Jacobina. “We have thousands and thousands of cases of dengue and that costs a lot for the country. People are unable to work.”
Referred to by some as a “Franken-skeeter,” the GM mosquitoes – Aedes aegypti – have been genetically modified with a lethal gene to wipe out their own species once they mate. GM males, which don’t bite, are released to mate with ordinary mosquitoes who may carry the dengue fever virus. But their offspring inherit the lethal gene and die before they can reproduce. The GM females, which would bite, are destroyed in the lab.
Critics believe that more studies are needed before releasing genetically modified mosquitoes into the environment. Some scientists have voiced concerns about what might happen if some of the genetically modified female mosquitoes were inadvertently released, since they can bite people and animals.
In the lab the GM mosquitoes are kept alive with the antibiotic tetracycline. Critics have speculated that offspring of the GM male mosquitoes and the wild female mosquitoes might stay alive by gaining access to food or medicine that contain tetracycline. Others suggest that the genetically modified traits of the mosquitoes could mutate in some way and become more dangerous or simply produce some unintended consequences to the environment.
“They are even harder to recall than plants are if anything goes wrong,” said Helen Wallace, director of the British environmental group GeneWatch.
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It’s also possible that if the local population of mosquitoes is wiped out, a different subspecies of mosquito could move into the area – one that is not susceptible to the lethal gene of the GM mosquitoes and which would be even harder to control.
Supporters note that there has been a successful field test of the genetically modified mosquitoes in an urban setting. In 2010 the Oxitec company released 3.3 million genetically engineered male mosquitoes on Grand Cayman Island in the Caribbean over a 23-week period. They claimed an 80 percent reduction in the dengue mosquito population.
Americans should take note of the controversy because the US Food and Drug Administration is considering a request from the state of Florida to approve a test release of GM mosquitoes in the Florida Keys. The Keys suffered an outbreak of dengue fever in 2009-10 in which 93 cases were reported, ABC News report.
Officials say that the ecosystem in the Florida Keys is fragile and they want to eliminate the mosquitoes without using pesticides that could harm wildlife and public health. It has divided environmentalists.
“Because the mosquito we are after is a guerilla warfare type, hiding underneath homes and in bushes, large scale spraying is not effective,” Michael Doyle, executive director of the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District, told ABC News. “In order to ensure the health and comfort of our residents and visitors, we think this is a scientifically reasonable approach to controlling this type of mosquito.”
Many, though, oppose the idea of releasing genetically modified mosquitoes around one of the loveliest beaches and coastlines in the United States. More than 130,000 people have signed a Change.org petition opposing the release of the GM mosquitoes around Key West.
“Nearly all experiments with genetically-modified crops have eventually resulted in unintended consequences: superweeds more resistant to herbicides, mutated and resistant insects also collateral damage to ecosystems,” the petition reads. “A recent news story reported that the monarch butterfly population is down by half in areas where Roundup Ready GM crops are doused with ultra-high levels of herbicides that wipe out the monarch’s favorite milkweed plant.
“What about our native species of Florida Keys Bats. Are there any studies being conducted to see if these mosquitoes will harm the native bat population?”
The petition continued: “Why would we not expect GM (genetically modified) insects, especially those that bite humans, to have similar unintended negative consequences? Will the more virulent Asian tiger mosquito that also carries dengue fill the void left by reductions in A. aegypti? Will the dengue virus mutate (think antibiotic resistant MRSA) and become even more dangerous?”
Would you support the release of the GM mosquitoes? Tell us your thoughts in the comments section below.