A plan to release over 750 million genetically-modified mosquitos in the Florida Keys in 2021 and 2022 has been approved by the Environmental Protection Agency and various Florida regulatory authorities. Predictably, activists who reject science are attacking this decision.
Basically, the genetically-modified mosquitos will help combat the invasive Aedes aegypti mosquito, which carries several dangerous diseases like the Zika virus and Dengue fever, passing it to humans.
There have been numerous cases of Zika virus infection in south Florida, and, because of the lack of effective preventative vaccines and treatments, public health officials have looked at other methods to prevent the Zika virus. The most effective way is to eliminate the carriers of this virus, mosquitoes.
I have written several articles about these GMO mosquitoes, which some have called the “Frankensquito,” a complete misuse of both the genetic modification of the mosquito and a misunderstanding of the Frankenstein myth. It’s just a scare tactic.
Let’s take a look at the real science behind these genetically-modified mosquitos, and why it will save humans.
All about genetically-modified mosquitos
An innovative small UK based biotechnology company, Oxitec, has developed genetically modified mosquitos (always males) that would mate with wild females. After mating with the genetically modified males, the females would produce offspring that cannot survive to adults. The males have a gene, which passes to the next generation, which causes them to require an antibiotic, tetracycline, in their diet to survive.
Tetracycline is not a compound that is found in nature, like the blood of mammals that are the food source for these mosquitoes. Over time, with multiple releases of males, the population of the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which is one of two vectors (along with Ae. albopictus) for transmitting Zika and Dengue fever to humans, would fall. After the release of these genetically-modified mosquitos, the population of the mosquito would be reduced to a level where transmission of the virus would be slowed or stopped.
Of course, there would be other benefits to eliminating this mosquito. Since Ae. aegypti is also the vector for other serious tropical diseases, such as Chikungunya, there could be added benefit to eliminating the mosquito.
Why use genetically-modified mosquitos?
The benefits of this type of control of the mosquito are tremendous:
- Most importantly, these genetically-modified mosquitoes allow mosquito control districts to avoid or reduce the use of insecticides which have significant more risks to the environment and humans than any imagined beliefs about genetically modified mosquitoes. Additionally, insecticides may have unintended consequences by harming other species of insects that may provide a benefit to the environment. Frankensquitos only hurt one species of mosquito.
- Because the genetically-modified mosquito only lives one generation, about 2-4 weeks, they and the next generation will perish, because of the lack of the tetracycline nutrient. Insecticides can last for much longer periods of time in the environment.
- The other method of reducing mosquito populations is the “sterile insect technique” (SIT). This method relies upon radiation-sterilize males, which are then released into infested areas to mate. Unfortunately, the radiation weakens the male, so that they don’t mate in numbers sufficient to eliminate the mosquito population.
In 2016 (well before Donald Trump messed with the independence of the FDA), the FDA has found that the GMO mosquito will have no significant impact on humans or the environment (pdf). Oxitec will probably seek approval from Florida to proceed with the release of the mosquitoes in parts of the Florida Keys.
GMO denier arguments
But of course, after several years of testing, the crazy internet still is opposed to the release of these Frankensquitos. During the commenting phase of the FDA decision mentioned above, there were complaints flooding the FDA from “concerned citizens” that may have caused a delay in a decision on the release of these mosquitoes.
One of those useless slacktivist petitions on Change.org is pushing pseudoscience and outright misinformation about the genetically modified mosquito. Sadly, it has just over 234,000 signatures, which means absolutely nothing to anybody. But let’s remember that 234,000 people must think junk science is more important than saving human lives. I don’t get it.
Here are some of the more ridiculous pseudoscientific claims of the anti-GMO crowd:
- What about the native species of Florida Keys Bats. Are there any studies being conducted to see if these mosquitoes will harm the native bat population? The bats are not particular about the species of mosquito they eat. If A. aegypti is eliminated by this method, it’ll be replaced by other, less dangerous species, which will be just as tasty to those bats. And the genetically modified mosquitoes will also be tasty. It’s not going to be a problem, it won’t harm the bats in any way imaginable.
- Speaking about Florida Keys Bats, let’s get more, they’ll eat all the mosquitos. No, they won’t. It’s some sort of fantasy to believe that you could fill the environment with a predator, and eliminate all the prey. If they did that, the predators would all die. And besides, bats in the numbers necessary to remove every mosquito has its own health and environmental issues.
- That mosquito DNA is going to get injected into humans with unknown consequences. It’s nearly impossible to take this type of claim seriously. If this were possible, we’d have become mosquitoes millions of years ago. Or corn stalks. Or beef cattle. Or just about anything else. Foreign DNA cannot be immediately incorporated into the human genome unless you’re inventing some new kind of science. A foreign DNA particle injected into the bloodstream by a mosquito would not be immediately incorporated into the human genome, spread through every cell, immediately killing us. No, the immune system would identify the particle as foreign and eliminate it.
- That mosquito DNA is going to get injected into humans with unknown consequences. Part 2. Male mosquitoes, the only ones genetically modified, don’t bite. They only like flower nectar. Even if you believed that genes magically pass from the mosquito to humans, it would never happen because you’d never get bitten.
- The bioengineered genes would pass to the bats. Precisely how is this claim biologically plausible? See above. The DNA/RNA within food sources do not get transferred to the consuming species. It’s biologically impossible and betrays a high degree of biological ignorance for anyone who states that.
But, as you know, when anyone starts discussing how genetic engineering can actually help our lives, science gets set aside and politics matters more. Activists, using the same techniques as all science deniers, whether creationists or global warming deniers, try to create a debate that sounds scientific, but never really is. The fact is that molecular genetic engineering is more precise and predictable than older, cruder techniques like irradiation, for mosquitos.
The World Health Organization, by no means in the “pocket” of Big Pharma or Big Chemical (or Big Mosquito, I suppose) has requested that regulatory agencies emphasize “science-based, case-by-case targeted requirements with a degree of practical parsimony,” instead of relying on “a precautionary approach that can require data to address all theoretical risks.”
In other words, quit delaying technology that can help mankind because of an oversensitivity to political debates that can be largely dismissed by real science.
There are no convincing arguments, at least from a scientific point of view, that genetically modified mosquitoes pose any danger to humans, other animals, plant life, the environment, anything. This is based on science, not pseudoscience, and junk science.
We have mountains of scientific evidence that support the fact that mosquito-borne illnesses, like the Zika virus and Dengue fever, harm and kill human beings. Those are unassailable facts.
We have boatloads of scientific evidence that these Frankensquitos can save lives by substantially reducing the numbers of disease-carrying mosquitos. Those are also unassailable facts.
Regulators, either at the state, local, or Federal level, have stood up for real science and firmly rejected the ridiculous populist rhetoric that attempts to create pseudoscientific roadblocks to progress. These mosquito-borne diseases harm humans, and we have a rather elegant and safe solution to prevent the spread of the disease.
The elitist anti-biotechnology crowd seems to have one goal in mind – block anything that doesn’t support their narrow-minded view of the planet. They employ some Naturalistic Fallacy, or an Appeal to Nature, that the only right way to help humanity shouldn’t include biotechnology, because it’s not natural. That kind of arrogance could kill us all.
These genetically-modified mosquitoes will not harm humans or wildlife – but they will save lives by protecting us from deadly and dangerous diseases. The benefit to risk ratio is so high, it approaches what we see with vaccines.
I’m glad that regulators have the guts to do this. Frankensquitos are here to protect us. Good.
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- Chakradhar S. Buzzkill: Regulatory uncertainty plagues rollout of genetically modified mosquitoes. Nat Med. 2015 May 7;21(5):416-8. doi: 10.1038/nm0515-416. PubMed PMID: 25951523.
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- Radke EG, Gregory CJ, Kintziger KW, Sauber-Schatz EK, Hunsperger EA, Gallagher GR, Barber JM, Biggerstaff BJ, Stanek DR, Tomashek KM, Blackmore CG. Dengue outbreak in Key West, Florida, USA, 2009. Emerg Infect Dis. 2012 Jan;18(1):135-7. doi: 10.3201/eid1801.110130. PubMed PMID: 22257471; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC3310087. Impact factor: 5.993.
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