See also "Genetically Modified Bugs Glow Red and Self-Destruct, but Can They Keep Away Disease?"
A petition against the experimental release of genetically modified mosquitoes in Key West has garnered more than 95,000 signatures. In the past 24 hours, more than 10,000 people have signed it.
But if the petition hits its goal of 150,000 signatures, will mosquito officials in the Keys be compelled to give up on their plans? Probably not.
Earlier this summer, we published a cover story on how the experiment would work and why mosquito experts are so keen on the idea. The story featured Mila de Mier, a vocal rabble-rouser who took us into her offices and introduced us to plenty of other Conchs who didn't want their backyards turned into testing grounds for a British biotech firm.
At the end of May, de Mier's petition on Change.org had only a few hundred signatures. Interest in the subject has soared recently, likely due to a plethora of news articles from outlets such as Mother Jones, the New Yorker and, of course, New Times. By the end of the day, it's likely de Mier's petition will crack 100,000 signatures.
Oxitec, the company that makes the genetically modified mosquitoes, is in a tough situation. It has struggled to convey the benefits of its mosquitoes and can't seem to shed old taboos that most people conjure when they hear the words genetically modified.
Its technology -- a single species of mosquitoes that contains a self-destruct gene -- could help drive down rates of dengue fever around the world. Dengue is a nasty tropical disease that infects more than 50 million people a year and has a strong foothold in the Caribbean. There was a spat of dengue cases a few years back in the Keys, but the area hasn't had a confirmed case since November 2010.
Mosquito officials in the Keys, however, fear that the disease could reemerge and deal a swift blow to the tourism industry. Genetically modified mosquitoes could potentially keep dengue away from the Keys and be less damaging to the local environment than some of the chemicals that are currently used.
There are, however, numerous concerns that Oxitec hasn't been forthcoming with data showing that its genetically modified mosquitoes are safe and effective at keeping dengue rates down. Groups like Friends of the Earth have been keeping track of every move Oxitec makes in hopes of keeping its mosquitoes out of the U.S.
And although the petition against the experiment has a boatload of signatures, it might not do anything. Michael Doyle of the Keys Mosquito Control District explained that the public health authority granted to the mosquito program trumps the power of local lawmakers.
Before jumping on the anti-mosquito bandwagon, we strongly suggest you spend 15 minutes reading our feature on the subject to better understand the upsides and downsides of Oxitec's mosquitoes.