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Modern Pest Control: Insects Genetically Altered to Die

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January 2, 2013

Mosquito control officials in the Florida Keys are awaiting approval from the federal government to begin releasing hundreds of thousands of genetically modified mosquitoes to stop the spread of dengue fever. How would it work? Simple.

The modified mosquitoes are designed to die before maturity. The idea is that these mosquitoes will go out into the population and breed with other non-modified mosquitoes. This self-destructive gene will be passed on to the baby mosquitoes and the offspring will die before they reach maturity. This will decrease the mosquito population and eventually eliminate it altogether.

This would be the first time that a genetically altered species was released into the general population in the United States outside of GE plants and produce. The company who has engineered these mosquitoes is Oxitec. Earlier in the year, Oxitec published an article in the journal Nature Biotechnology with the results of the 2010 field tests. The field test for these mosquitoes was done in the Grand Cayman Island in the Caribbean. Over a 23-week period, Oxitec released 3.3 million genetically engineered male mosquitoes on the island and claimed an 80 percent reduction of the dengue mosquito population. This means the modified mosquitoes do work. But is this a good thing?

I will point out that the targeted mosquitoes are the Aedes aegypti mosquito. This mosquito breed is not native to the United States. Therefore, it is not a huge food source for any other species. Sounds safe enough right?

Here are my concerns.

Health Concerns

Though the project only released non-biting male mosquitoes into the population, these mosquitoes will be breeding and creating genetically altered offspring. These offspring will be both male and female. Since we are only testing male mosquitoes could there be a potential for any health risks associated with a bite from a genetically altered female? I don’t know … but since the mosquitoes have only been around since 2010 I don’t feel this was tested for a long enough period of time to determine if health risks could result.

Mass Genocide of Species

The insects will only be released here in the US, but just as the Aedes aegypti mosquito made its way to the US, these genetically altered species could make their way to the native population. If this occurred we would have a mass extinction of an entire species. This would be detrimental to the species of the native land who feed on these mosquitoes for survival and could be a slippery slope. These insects decrease the population so fast that species feeding on these insects would not have time to adjust to the changes and could potential die off themselves.

The New Norm

Could genetically altered species for population control become the new norm in our society? With one win under its belt, this could be the new pest control of the modern world. Is this a road we are prepared to take? If so, how many species could be in danger?

What is your opinion? Should we be meddling with the genetic makeup of species for pest control?

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