Genetically modified mosquitoes could be released beginning this summer
silver bullet or jumping the gun?
This summer, for the first time, genetically modified mosquitoes could be released in the U.S. within the states of Florida and Texas.
On May 1, 2020, the company Oxitec received an experimental use permit from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to release millions of GM mosquitoes (labeled by Oxitec as OX5034) every week over the next two years in Florida and Texas.
Females of this mosquito species, Aedes aegypti, transmit dengue, chikungunya, yellow fever and Zika viruses. When these lab-bred GM males are released and mate with wild females, their female offspring die. Continual, large-scale releases of these OX5034 GM males should eventually cause the temporary collapse of a wild population.
However, as vector biologists, geneticists, policy experts and bioethicists, we are concerned that current government oversight and scientific evaluation of GM mosquitoes do not ensure their responsible deployment.
Genetic engineering for disease control
Coral reefs that can withstand rising sea temperatures, American chestnut trees that can survive blight and mosquitoes that can’t spread disease are examples of how genetic engineering may transform the natural world.
Genetic engineering offers an unprecedented opportunity for humans to reshape the fundamental structure of the biological world. Yet, as new advances in genetic decoding and gene editing emerge with speed and enthusiasm, the ecological systems they could alter remain enormously complex and understudied.
Recently, no group of organisms has received more attention for genetic modification than mosquitoes – to yield inviable offspring or make them unsuitable for disease transmission. These strategies hold considerable potential benefits for the hundreds of millions of people impacted by mosquito-borne diseases each year.
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Photo credits: RHONA WISE/AFP via Getty Images
Editor: Beth Daley