Genetically Modified Bugs Glow Red and Self-Destruct, but Can They Keep Away Disease?

Genetically Modified Bugs Glow Red and Self-Destruct, but Can They Keep Away Disease?

It's a pristine spring morningon the remote tip of Big Pine Key, 30 miles north of Key West. The lone paved road is surrounded by dense brush and wetlands that give way to the Gulf of Mexico. On this particular Tuesday, though, the usually silent landscape is dominated by the pulsing whoosh of a brown and tan helicopter that just touched down. Half a dozen workers in neon safety vests, surgical masks, and sunglasses emerge from the roadside and hustle toward the aircraft. Under the whirling two-blade rotor, they form an assembly line and dump bags of a yellowish substance called larvicide into cone-shaped containers on the sides of the chopper.

This is the modern frontline of the war on mosquitoes, an epic, centurieslong struggle between mankind and nature that has left an indelible mark on the Sunshine State. Minutes after landing, the helicopter is back in the air, buzzing treetops. The pilot banks a tight U-turn, cuts down to an altitude of 60 feet or so, and delivers the payload. As the helicopter bolts out of sight, a barely visible granular trail flutters toward the ground. "Don't look up," says one of the workers on the ground.

The commander in chief of this latest skirmish that's unfolding in the Keys is entomologist (insect expert) Michael Doyle, a slight, mild-mannered Midwesterner with a fastidiously trimmed salt-and-pepper mustache and rimless eyeglasses. Executive director of the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District, Doyle says that about $45,000 will be spent by the end of the day just to counter the onslaught of mosquitoes hatched in the three to four inches of rain that fell over the weekend.

Michael Doyle, executive director of Florida Keys Mosquito Control, in front of one of the four helicopters used to wage aerial assaults on mosquitoes.
Chris Sweeney
Michael Doyle, executive director of Florida Keys Mosquito Control, in front of one of the four helicopters used to wage aerial assaults on mosquitoes.
Aedes aegypti mosquitoes are the only species in the South Florida capable of spreading dengue fever.
Courtesy of Oxitec
Aedes aegypti mosquitoes are the only species in the South Florida capable of spreading dengue fever.

Back at the agency's headquarters in Marathon, Doyle explains that the larvicide unleashed by the helicopter consists of ground-up corncobs slathered in naturally occurring bacteria that is toxic to mosquito larvae. (It would take a pickup truck-and-a-half of such larvicide to kill a human.) When the pellets land in puddles and nearby water, larvae gobble them up and die before they can morph into the flying, blood-sucking pests we so loathe.

But this method is expensive, labor-intensive, and ineffective against one of the most troublesome mosquito species, Aedes aegypti. Of the 44 species in the Keys, Aedes aegypti is the one that keeps Doyle up at night. It's the stealth bomber of mosquitoes: silent, capable of biting 20 people in a day, breeding in the shallow puddles around densely populated residential areas. Most alarming: It's the only species in the region capable of spreading dengue fever — a nasty and sometimes fatal disease that popped up in the Keys in recent years and could scare away the tourists who drive the local economy.

When Doyle left behind his days at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Colorado, where he studied mosquito saliva, to take charge of the Keys in July 2011, board members who oversee the mosquito program gave him a more than $10 million annual budget, staffers with PhD's, and a fleet that includes four helicopters and two airplanes. They also gave him two orders: Cut the budget while killing more mosquitoes, and ensure that no cases of dengue fever grab headlines like they did in 2009 and 2010.

"The dengue cases were a big deal," Doyle says. "It was the first time [the disease] had been back in more than 60 years. The concern is that the Keys could be a way for dengue to get a new foothold, or a refoothold, in the United States."

Doyle's solution? To move ahead with a controversial experiment that has been in the works since before he arrived: importing and releasing millions of Aedes aegypti mosquitoes that have been genetically modified in the labs of a British biotech firm called Oxitec. These minute marvels of science are tweaked to pass down a gene that causes their progeny to self-destruct soon after hatching. Only males would be released; theoretically, they would breed with normal females and spawn offspring that keel over and die just before adulthood. The dengue-spreading population would collapse generation by generation.

If Doyle's plan goes forward, Key West will be only the fourth site ever in which these genetically modified insects have been let loose, behind Malaysia, northern Brazil, and the Cayman Islands. But not everyone is eager to tinker with Mother Nature's genetics, perhaps put off by the idea of getting bitten by a mutant mosquito. This is, after all, the Conch Republic — full of sinners, sailors, developers, and assorted rebellious characters who, in 1982, famously declared they were seceding from the United States. Here, the environment teems with beauty and biodiversity, which in turn draw legions of money-spending tourists. Local residents will fight like hell to protect their unique way of life.

Doyle understands the complexity of the situation. "We are in a weird spot, because we want to get rid of dengue and not make headlines...," he says, then adds, laughing, "Then come GM mosquitoes."


As dusk settles over the hordesof sun-soaked tourists lumbering down Key West's boozy Duval Street, an eclectic gaggle of locals, without a formal group name but united in their concern about modified mosquitoes, gathers around a table in a cavernous real estate office. A delectable aroma from a platter of gourmet goodies hangs over the table as ice-cold bottles of Corona are passed around.

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11 comments
rana7071
rana7071

I completely agree with the above comment, the internet is with a doubt growing into the most important medium of communication across the globe and its due to sites like this that ideas are spreading so quickly. Thank you for the article. I just about passed your blog up in Google but now I'm glad I clicked the link and got to read through it. I'm definitely a little better informed now. I'll be sharing your site with some other people I know. They'll get a kick out of what I just read too.

orlando roofing contractor

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Organic Green Earth Solutions

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Jared Pitcher
Jared Pitcher

DEATH TO THE MOSQUITOS! The Dengue Virus is a Terrorist that invades cells and Hijacks the cell's ribosomes to make copies of itself that will go on to invade/hijack other cells. This Virus has potential to be transfered to a different species including Homo sapiens. www.youtube.com/watch?v=YDRRKA8CJHk .The goal is to stop cell division and PREVENT these creatures from transmitting this horrible Virus to other species. Dengue is Deadly, and Oxitec holds the patent on this amazing tool to lower the population of Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, generation by generation. The FDA is setting an example for the world, and must not disappoint.

FQS9000
FQS9000

It's so scary and I'm so stupid.  A terrible combination.  Let's have a study.  A real big, long and expensive study with lots of Phds and bureaucrats.  I don't care how many people die in the mean time so long as it isn't anybody in my family, then I'll sue the shit out of everybody who might have a dollar. 

Adam Czyrek
Adam Czyrek

Can someone give me an example of previous geo/bio engineering that had greater benefits than the eventual risks? This is a real, almost non-snarky question. On the bad side we have, rabbits in Australia, dams stopping salmon, snakes in Hawaii... Seriously give me one example of relatively harm free bio engineering please. Also, I wonder how far this UK company would get releasing GM mozzies in their home country.. ?

Guest
Guest

There are several cheap, effective and environmentally friendly alternatives to GM mosquitoes.  Native plants that repel Aedes aegypti like American Beautyberry can be used as screening to reduce the House Index.  A study using repellent plants in Tanzania reduced all mosquitoes found in houses by 50%, the cost was $1.50 per house which includes maintenance and labor costs.  This can be used with attractants and lethal ovitraps using used coffee grounds or other cheap environmentally friendly larvicides, as well as fan traps on the lethal ovitraps to not only reduce the larvae survival but also catch the adult females.  This push pull method may not only reduce the larvae from surviving, but unlike GM mosquitoes will also target the adult females and reduce the chance of Aedes aegypti entering the home, and at a fraction of the cost.

Other methods include the use of some strains of the fungi Beauveria bassiana and Metarhizium anisopliae which some peer reviewed studies suggest can also reduce the survival of Aedes aegypti offspring, but unlike GM mosquitoes can also cause mortality in the adult females, thus reducing both the population and the chance of being bit.

Yet another example is use of the bacteria Wolbachia, which some peer reviewed studies suggest may reduce the adult Aedes aegypti lifespan by 50% and unlike GM mosquitoes may actually provide resistance against dengue serotype 2 and chikungunya.  There are several other alternatives as well.

What mosquito control has failed to mention is that releasing millions of GM mosquitoes including thousands of females could potentially increase the risk of transmitting mosquito-borne diseases.  Releasing millions of male mosquitoes may also increase the risk of chikungunya which a peer reviewed study suggested can be spread when Aedes aegypti mate.  With each male mating as many as 21 times in their lifetime that is a huge risk not worth taking unless the adult female lifespan is significantly reduced or there is resistance against chikungunya, which doesn't appear to be the case for GM mosquitoes.  There have been over 100 cases of chikungunya reported in the U.S. between 2006 and 2009 including cases in Florida so this a very real risk.  Florida entomologist Walter J. Tabachnick, estimated that if an outbreak that occurred in Italy had occurred in Key West it would have caused 1,200 cases of chikungunya and 4,000 cases if it occurred during tourist season.  The Beauveria bassiana and Metarhizium anisopliae alternatives both reduce the lifespan of the adult female and therefore reduce the chance of chikungunya spreading, they can also be used without releasing more males but instead infecting the already existing males and/or females.  The Wolbachia alternative may reduce the lifespan of adult female Aedes aegypti and may even provide resistance against chikungunya, so even if more males were released there would be a significantly reduced risk of spreading chikungunya compared to GM mosquitoes.

There are numerous unknows such as whether or not the synthetic protein based on sequences from E.coli and the Herpes simplex virus that the GM mosquitoes express could be transmitted to humans during a bite or affect animals ingesting them.  As well as a partially independent lab reporting 15% of the GM mosquito offspring surviving in the presence of chicken found in cat food and a member of the mosquito control district admitting that Aedes aegypti have been found breeding in pet dishes, making such an event likely if GM mosquitoes are released.  Along with Florida Medical Entomology Laboratory's Phil Lounibos stating there is no supporting background evidence that GM mosquitoes would solve a dengue problem.  All of this and more makes a GM mosquito release seem like an expensive, pointless and potentially risky proposal.

CALZONE
CALZONE

Hey Nutbag scientists! S-T-O-P F$@#ng with mother nature! YOU are killing us (WE THE PEOPLE) with your Quack science

Bill
Bill

Mosquito Control does not even have permits for aerial spraying of pesticides.  Check that fact.  They are irresponsible and ignorant.  I don't trust them for a minute, and I don't trust their plan for releasing genetically modified Mosquitoes.

The new Middle Class Party
The new Middle Class Party

paranoid? Do they require a permit? Perhaps you would like the mosquitoes back and render South Florida uninhabitable? Did you get a permit to post this comment?

 
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