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Should Genetically Modified Mosquitoes Be Let Loose In Key West?

The latest battle over genetically modified organisms is brewing in Key West. 

On one side, a British biotechnology firm called Oxitec and a mild-mannered Midwesterner by the name of Michael Doyle, who heads mosquito control operations in the Keys. Together, they want to release millions of genetically modified mosquitoes in the heart of Key West. 

On the other side, concerned Conchs, environmental groups and activist organizations who are banding together to stop the Keys from becoming the latest test grounds for a nascent and controversial technology. 

If the experiment is approved, Key West will be only the fourth site in the world to let modified mosquitoes fly free. 

This week's cover story examines the pros and cons of the experiment and sheds light on the missteps Oxitec has taken in the past. The mosquitoes are designed so that their offspring keel over and die soon after hatching. Only one species of mosquitoes, Aedes aegypti, is being targeted. The idea is that wiping out the Aedes aegypti population will keep dengue fever - a nasty, "pandemic-prone" disease - from showing up in the Keys. 

Doyle and Oxitec see the modified mosquitoes as an eco-friendly and economical alternative to the potent chemicals currently used. Opponents worry that there's no independent, third-party data showing the mosquitoes are safe and actually capable of staving off dengue.  

Sure, it's easy to write the whole experiment off as that weird bug thing going on in Key West. But it's important to realize the national and global implications of such an experiment. Approval from the FDA and a test in the Keys may very well usher in the age of genetically modified insects. 

We've already let genetically modified moths created by Oxitec loose in the southwest to safeguard crops from pests. Now we're inching toward a future in which genetically modified insects could be used to beat back diseases that have plagued mankind for centuries. 

Oxitec's mutant mosquitoes carry enormous potential. They also carry numerous uncertainness and a sense of sci-fi weirdness that many people are leery of.

Should we embrace this approach if it's proven to help stop the spread of diseases? Is tinkering with the genetics of insects and potentially altering the ecosystem going too far? 

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Chris Sweeney

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