So, Oxitec's genetically modified mosquitoes are an ostensibly elegant solution to Doyle's conundrum. "I've looked at all other options for Aedes aegypti control, but they're too expensive or environmentally damaging. This sounds like the best option we have going."

Over in Oxitec's mosquito factory on the outskirts of Oxford, England, scientists use razor-sharp glass needles to inject small amounts of DNA into tens of thousands of mosquito eggs. Most of the eggs will die, but the ones that survive will incorporate the extra DNA into their genome and go on to develop two genetic modifications that can be passed down. The first causes the mosquitoes to glow fluorescent red when placed under a high-powered microscope. Though this may sound like something from a Michael Crichton novel, it's a relatively old trick that's used to track all types of research animals. The second modification, the insertion of an autocidal gene, is what causes the mosquitoes to self-destruct.

In the lab, the modified mosquitoes are fed tetracycline. This common antibiotic essentially turns the death gene off. This allows the insects to stay alive, breed, and produce eggs that now contain the gene.

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.

"All the fancy genetic stuff is done over [in England]," Doyle explains. "I call Oxitec, they send a boxful of eggs, we grow the eggs in cake pans, give them food and water, and sort them in a lab we'll set up in a trailer."

By sorting, Doyle means weeding out any females by looking at the size of the larvae — males are smaller than females. It's the most crucial step in the process because only female mosquitoes bite humans, and releasing hordes of modified mosquitoes capable of sucking our blood would be counterproductive at best. Doyle acknowledges, however, that this sorting method isn't foolproof; about one female gets through and is released for every 1,500 male mosquitoes, he says.

"The chance of getting bit by a female genetically modified mosquito is pretty small, but it's not impossible. It's going to happen." The effects of such a bite are unclear, but the idea of getting bitten by a mutant mosquito could freak people out. Environmental groups and organizations opposed to genetic modifications of any sort have been vocal over the lack of information on this aspect. Oxitec maintains that the proteins composing the genetic modification aren't present in mosquito saliva and thus won't be transmitted during a bite. It's a sentiment that scientists who are critical of the company tend to agree with.

Doyle and his team are now busy looking for two similar six-block-by-six-block areas in Key West where they can conduct their experiment. In phase one, they intend to release a few thousand Oxitec mosquitoes and set traps. From the mosquitoes that get caught, they can determine the ratio of Oxitec mosquitoes to normal ones. Then, they'll do a second phase, releasing ten Oxitec mosquitoes for every wild one. Doyle says that over six months, 2 million to 6 million genetically modified mosquitoes will be released. Saturating the test site with the modified mosquitoes should increase their odds for successfully mating with normal females.

A potential pitfall is that the street-smart, wild males will simply outgun the lab-pampered mosquitoes. But if all goes as planned and Oxitec mosquitoes get to the females first, the offspring will hatch and live for a few days before the genetic modification kicks into effect and shuts down the cellular machinery needed for the pupae to become functioning adults. Hordes of tiny mosquito corpses will flow through the shallow breeding grounds.

Doyle is well-aware of the experimental nature of a release and says he needs to be a "cautious buyer." At the same time, he's eager to get the test under way because the threat of dengue looms as millions of tourists flock to the Keys each year.


When Joel Biddle, Mila de Mier, and their Conch friends began looking into Oxitec's history, they found a few worrisome things about the decade-old, privately funded company. Oxitec, which employs about 40 people, has consistently come under fire from environmental organizations, anti-GM groups, and academics for its lack of transparency when carrying out experiments. So far, the company has released mosquitoes in Brazil in 2011, Malaysia in 2010, and the Cayman Islands — where more than 3 million genetically modified mosquitoes have been dispatched since 2008.

Few peer-reviewed scientific journal articles have been published demonstrating the effectiveness and safety of genetically modified mosquitoes when released in the wild. Those that have been published include an Oxitec staffer among the authors, and there are no independent, third-party studies under way.

Opponents, including the Conchs at the real estate office, hone in on the Cayman experiment because it's the furthest along. About four years ago, Oxitec and the Cayman mosquito control authority collaborated on an experiment without providing much information to the scientific community or local residents about the release. In November 2010, Oxitec took the stage at a medical conference in Atlanta and delivered findings from what was the first field trial ever of genetically modified mosquitoes. Some researchers in the crowd were surprised that, all of a sudden, a British biotech company was announcing that it had released its mutant mosquitoes in the wild without consulting the larger research community.

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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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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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