Genetically modified mosquitoes: Why some Floridians fear this solution

A British company plans to release genetically modified mosquitoes in Key West, Fla., to combat the spread of tropical disease. But public fears of unintended consequences may halt this field test. 

(AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee, File)
Carrie Atwood, an entomological technician with the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District, sorts and counts dead captured mosquitoes in Key West, Fla. Millions of genetically modified mosquitoes could be released in the Florida Keys if British researchers win approval to use the bugs against two extremely painful viral diseases. Never before have insects with modified DNA come so close to being set loose in a residential U.S. neighborhood.

Some entomologists say that Hollywood, parachuting cats, and crushed eggs may be to blame for the no confidence vote some Floridians are giving the plan for a British company to release millions of genetically modified mosquitoes into neighborhoods in the Florida Keys.

British research corporation, Oxitec hopes to win government approval to release the GMO bugs this Spring in the Florida Keys to help combat any future outbreaks of tropical diseases known to be spread by mosquitoes. 

“When I met with Oxitec researched in England three years ago at a conference I told them this was going to be a tough sell to the American public which gets the bulk of its understanding of DNA science from Jurassic park and 1920s movies about 50-foot ants,” says Joe Conlon, a technical advisor for the American Mosquito Control Association (AMCA) in a phone interview from his office in Jacksonville, Fla..

Prof. Susan Paskewitz of the Medical Entomology Laboratory at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Department of Entomology says in a phone interview that even more than the mutant dinosaurs, the public still remembers that in the 1950s domestic cats were dropped into Borneo by parachute to kill rodents. The cats landed in a DDT-laced area and ended up dying in droves. The rat population boomed. 

Professor Paskewitz points to a paper Patrick T. O'Shaughnessy titled “Parachuting Cats and Crushed Eggs: The Controversy Over the Use of DDT to Control Malaria,” which has become well known in the scientific community as a cautionary tale of how public confidence in science was undermined by the unintended consequences in those experiments.

“More than a lack of scientific education on the part of the public we could be looking at a lack of confidence in science,” Paskewitz says. “There is a history to point to here with DDT that had these huge unintended consequences such as the cats and the thinning of egg shell of birds nesting in areas sprayed with DDT.”

As for the introduction of genetically-altered mosquitoes, Mr. Conlon adds, “Realistically, the liability issues involved in the release of something genetically modified, and it becoming a monster, are be so astronomical that Oxitec is being very very careful and thorough in their trials.”

“People fear what they don’t understand and they don’t understand this issue,” he adds. “While it’s true we don’t know the long-term effects, theoretically, given all the data we’ve seen, there shouldn’t be any. But that just takes us right back to Jurassic Park when the scientist said the same thing. Movie thinking affecting real life.”

The GMO mosquitoes have already had a trial run in the Cayman Islands, Conlon says, “The results were not as dramatic as Oxitec had hoped, so they need more trials.”

"They're still literally in the beginning steps of this process," says Beth Ronson, public education officer for the Florida Keys Mosquito Conrtol District in a phone interview. "The FDA, CDC and a 30-day public comment period are all yet to come. At best, if all of that happened very quickly they could expect to do the release in late May or early June."Ms. Ronson adds, "Thsi is far from decided. We are looking for a tool. At any time if the district finds something its not comfortable with it will look into it further."

Calls to Oxitec were not immediately returned.

According to the Oxitec website, the British biotech firm has patented a method of breeding Aedes aegypti with fragments of genes from the herpes simplex virus and E. coli bacteria as well as coral and cabbage. This synthetic DNA is commonly used in laboratory science and is thought to pose no significant risks to other animals, but it kills mosquito larvae.

The plan is to release only males, which don't bite for blood like females do. The modified males then mate with wild females whose offspring die, reducing the population.

Oxitec has built a breeding lab in Marathon, Fla., and hopes to release its mosquitoes in a Key West neighborhood this spring.

Releasing insects with modified DNA in a residential population would be a first for the US. But a petition online at the website has already gathered 130,000 signatures from those who fear, being bitten by what it refers to as “mutant bugs.”

The petition reads in part: “Even though the local community in the Florida Keys has spoken -- we even passed an ordinance demanding more testing -Oxitec is trying to use a loophole by applying to the FDA for an ‘animal bug’ patent. This could mean these mutant mosquitoes could be released at any point against the wishes of locals and the scientific community. We need to make sure the FDA does not approve Oxitec's patent.”

“We alter things genetically from food to crops all the time,” says Paskewitz. “Could there be unintended consequences? There could and there have been, but an outbreak of dengue fever would have a far more substantial effect on the Florida population.”

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