There was once a company called Oxford Insect Technologies, or Oxitec, that came up with a brilliant solution to reduce the spread of mosquito-borne diseases: more mosquitoes. Specifically, legions of mutated male are Aedes aegypti, which have been genetically modified (and EPA-approved!) With a trait that causes their sperm to destroy once an egg is fertilized. Back in 2016, I called them “Sexytime Frankenstein Death Mosquitoes,” but unfortunately, the moniker never quite caught on.
While this sounds completely ridiculous on the surface, it makes sense: of the 3,500+ known mosquito species on the planet, only females of two species (Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus) actually bite humans to feed on their blood, which is how these diseases initially spread. So you send in Oxitec mutated males to breed with the human-hungry females that lay eggs that are not viable, and then they all die because mosquitoes still have short lifespans, and within a few months no more mosquito infestations that could kill you. Meanwhile, there are still plenty of non-human hungry mosquitoes in the world to keep the ecosystem going with the frogs or whatever else plans to feed on them. And Oxitec has actually seen success with this! (Although it is not a flawless scheme either.)
… But the idea of Sexytime Frankenstein Death Mosquitoes still understandably scares people out. And which Futurism reports tearing apart a city in Florida:
One Friday afternoon in March, a Florida Keys resident named Virginia Donaldson told Futurism that two men in uniform walked up to her house, said they worked for “mosquito control”; and asked her to participate in a new pest control program.
Donaldson was in a hurry, so she says she signed their clipboard and watched as they hung a small, black mosquito trap up from a tree in her garden.
“I do not even know what I have signed. I have just signed my name,” she said. “I was like ‘Oh, mosquito control, yes anything.'”[…]
Donaldson says first, that after learning more about the experiment, she decided she would not participate. A few days after the men in uniform had installed the cup on her property, she cut it down, put it in a plastic bag so the liquids inside did not spill, and left it on a chair in her garden.
Donaldson was also not the only upset resident. But of course, the Oxitec representatives had already gotten the permission they needed to set up the mosquito traps, so they tried to set them up again … which embittered people even more, leading to allegations of infringement and property damage. Which pissed people off even more. Which leads to some angry community encounters. Which leads to the discovery of a few other experimental oversights:
Oxitec’s mosquito eggs – which will be delivered to the Florida Keys in “just-add-water” kits, which it distributes on residents’ property along with collection cups – will include both females and males. But the females that carry the gene apparently cannot survive without the drug tetracycline, so they are expected to die out as larvae. The company says about 1,000 men hatch out of each set in two weeks. The problem is that tetracycline is often used as an agricultural antibiotic in the citrus groves of the area.
The EPA banned Oxitec from releasing mosquitoes within 500 meters wherever tetracycline is used – several times the distance a typical Aedesmosquitoes will travel for the rest of their lives. At no point, however, did the EPA require that water at the release site be tested for traces of the compound.[…]
Kuzma was also concerned about the lack of cage trials and the lack of research into whether the genetically hybridized mosquitoes that will occur when Oxitec mosquitoes mate with the wild population are in fact more probably spreading dengue – a possibility that no one has bothered to check or study.[…]
Meanwhile, part of the regulatory process was obscured from the public. Only two pages of documentation about the project were available on the EPA’s website during the designated 30-day public comment period in 2019, which received over 31,000 comments that were against the experiment and only 56 supported it.
Futurism has the whole story, which is like a dark sci-fi sitcom in Florida.
Residents furious at the release of 500 million re-hacked mosquitoes [Dan Robitzki / Futurism]
Researchers have found a smart new way to fight mosquito-borne diseases: more mosquitoes. [Thom Dunn / Upworthy]
Image: Alvesgaspar / Wikimedia Commons (CC-BY-SA 3.0)