Should You Worry About Saboteur Genetics?

Most of us are familiar with the discomfort of a mosquito bite. And unfortunately, many of us have acquired a disease from a mosquito bite. In January 2021, the eggs of more than 750 million genetically modified male mosquitoes will be released in the Florida Keys. Their modifications create a form of genetic sabotage. Should you worry about saboteur genetics?

a mosquito biting a human arm--saboteur genetics means the female won't survive to bite but should you worry about saboteur genetics?

In today’s article, we’ll discuss the mosquito, the diseases carried by this species of mosquito, and what we know about this test. 

The Mosquito

Life Cycle

There are 3,500-4,000 species of mosquitoes. Their life cycle from birth to larva takes from five to forty days, depending upon ambient temperatures, density of larval population, and food supply.

Most mosquito lay their eggs on the surface of stagnant water. Clutches of eggs of hatch as soon as possible, and all the eggs in the clutch hatch into larvae at much the same time.

As larvae, they are mobile and feed on algae and organic material. Larvae develop through four stages, then they metamorphose into pupae.

Pupae typically hang from the surface of the water by their respiratory trumpets. Depending on temperature and other circumstances, in a few days the adult mosquito emerges.

Adult Mosquitoes

Within a few days, the adult mosquito mates. In most species, the males form large swarms around dusk, and the females fly into the swarms to mate.

The males live about five to seven days. The females live up to a month.

Both male and female mosquitoes feed on nectar, aphid honeydew, and plant juices. In many species, the females’ mouthparts can pierce the skin of animals. They feed on blood from  vertebrates, (mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and some fish. Some invertebrates, primarily other arthropods). The blood contains protein and iron needed to produce eggs. 

Blood-sucking mosquitoes inject saliva into their victims. Their saliva acts like an anticoagulant; without it, the female mosquito’s proboscis might become clogged with blood clots. The saliva also is the principal route by which mosquito transfers pathogens into the bodies of their blood source.

And that is the crux of the matter.

Mosquito-carried Diseases

Mosquitos can carry viruses, bacterial disease, and parasites. They remain unaffected by the disease and transfer it to their human (or animal) host via their saliva.

Malaria is a parasitic disease. You probably already knew mosquitoes carried it. But it’s not a disease the Florida officials are trying to reduce or eradicate.

Diseases you may have heard of include the Zika virus, yellow fever, dengue fever, and West Nile fever. There are many more, but these are the primary diseases that concern the officials in Florida. In 2009 and 2010, the Florida keys suffered outbreaks of dengue fever.

Truck fumigation of a city street. Should you worry about saboteur genetics or fumigation?

The Florida Keys attempts to control the mosquito population with aerial, truck, and backpack spraying larvicides and pesticides at a cost of more than a million dollars per year. Their efforts are not effective.

Saboteur Genetics

It has taken almost a decade to get seven state agencies and the EPA to approve the experiment that will begin in January 2021.

Oxitec is the US owned, British-based company that developed the genetically modified organism (GMO). They altered the male mosquito’s genetics to produce female larvae that die. Thus the females never get to adult stage where they would bite anyone.

According to Oxitec, they tested this GMO mosquito in the Cayman Islands, Panama, and Brazil. They report that release of their GMO male reduced this species of mosquito by 95% in an urban area of Brazil.

Oxitec will release over 750 million male eggs over a two-year period. The FDA requires Oxitec to notify Florida state officials 72 hours before releasing the mosquitoes. They also must conduct ongoing tests for at least 10 weeks after release.

Oxitec also plans to release this GMO mosquito in Harris County, Texas, in 2021.

Environmental & Human Risk

Oxitec states they have released billions of the GMO mosquitos. “There is no potential for risk to the environment or humans.” But some fear there will be an impact to local birds, fish, and insects who feed on mosquitoes.

Others are angry that Florida Keys officials are spending money on these GMO mosquitoes during the pandemic, economic hardships, and racial tensions. They feel spending the money on those issues would be better.

Worry About Saboteur Genetics?

It’s hard to know. The EPA declined to run its own safety tests on this GMO. Oxitec says they have plenty of evidence of their claim that there is no risk. I tend to not trust self-reporting and self-regulation by a private corporation. On the other hand, wiping out these awful disease would be a very good thing. Does the good outweigh the risk? Florida Keys officials think so.

These mosquitos are not the first GMO insect released in the United States.  The first GMO insects released in the US, also from Oxitec, were early versions of pink bollworm moths. The program intended to wipe out this cotton pets in the U. S Southwest. The GMO insect only had a genetic marker. This modification only identified it. It did not alter its fertility or lifespan.

In this transcript from NPR’s All Things Considered, Ari Shapiro speaks with Nora Besansky, a professor of biology specializing in mosquitoes, about what would happen if mosquitoes were eradicated.

Are you worried? Is your worry based on your risk-aversion? Or perhaps it’s based on a lack of control? Or perhaps, you fear we are on the verge of our own version of Jurassic Park like in my post conservation genetics. Let me know in the comments. Should you worry about saboteur genetics?

2 thoughts on “Should You Worry About Saboteur Genetics?

  1. I’m with you about self-regulation (and testing)–just no–beyond that, a pandemic is no time for this experiment. Yet, this is Florida so reason is rarely part of any equation. Thanks, Lynette!

    1. All we can do at this point is hope that there’s no fall-out. Especially none that reaches where you live! But of course, there’s always unexpected consequences. SIGH.

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