Genetically Modified Mosquitoes Approved For Insect Population Control In The U.S.
Genetically modified mosquitoes with the ability to prevent the spread of deadly diseases by other mosquitoes could find their way into the Florida backyards in the near future.
The British biotech company Oxitec announced on Tuesday that the company has received federal and state approval to release its so-called "friendly" mosquitoes in the United States on an experimental basis, which, according to environmental protection officials, is expected to continue until 2022. The insects are first released in Monroe County, Florida, and Oxitec plans to bring them to Harris County, Texas as well.
Oxitec's project includes Aedes aegypti, the mosquito that spreads yellow fever, dengue and zika, among others. While female Aedes aegypti feed on blood and are the vehicle for such diseases, male Aedes aegypti are harmless, and Oxitec's "friendly" mosquitoes are men who have been modified to carry a specific "self-limiting gene". This gene shortens the life expectancy of all female offspring that may promote it, but it lives on in men and provides "self-limiting generations of oppression" that can decrease the general Aedes aegypti population over time, theoretically leading to a population reduction the diseases for which the insects are known.
"In the United States, there is broad consensus among health authorities that a new generation of safe, targeted, and cost-effective vector control tools is urgently needed to address the growing Aedes aegypti threat without compromising the ecosystem," said Gray Frandsen, CEO of Oxitec said in the company's announcement. "We are delighted that EPA and Florida regulators have approved our demonstration trials after extensive scientific reviews, and look forward to continuing to work with our local partners to address the issue."
This novel method of combating the mosquito population was recently tested in the municipality of Indaiatuba near São Paulo, Brazil, from May 2018 to 2019. In one of the communities tested, Oxitec observed that the genetically modified mosquitoes managed to suppress the population of Aedes aegypti up to 96% within four weeks.
Oxitec's work in mosquito genetics is not without controversy, and the company has targeted Florida as a test site for almost a decade. A Change.org petition calling on the EPA to reject the company's proposals, which was originally posted online in 2012, has received over 230,000 signatures, and the EPA is facing litigation from stakeholders, including the Food Safety Center and Friends of the Earth in the United States for approval of Oxitec's latest proposal.
Jaydee Hanson, political director of the Center for Food Safety, said in a statement the mosquito project was a "Jurassic Park" experiment. Hanson argued that the EPA had "illegally refused to seriously analyze environmental risks" by not conducting in-depth consultations with local wildlife agencies before Oxitec let its insects run free.
"The Florida Keys and Houston and surrounding communities are home to some of the most diverse and endangered species in our country," said Dana Perls, food and technology program manager at Friends of the Earth USA, in the same statement. "Once again, the Trump administration is disregarding scientific experts and the will of the community to push through this risky experiment."
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