Hundreds of millions of mosquitos will soon be released in Florida. On purpose. The mosquitoes are being released as a form of pest control, but they could wreak havoc on local ecosystems. And honestly, just the thought of it makes my ankles itch.
This week, the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District approved a plan to unleash 750 million of these fuckers throughout 2021 and 2022. But these are no ordinary mosquitoes; they’ve been genetically engineered to reduce the numbers of another kind of mosquito.
See, the region has a big problem with Aedes aegypti, a type of mosquito species which carries yellow fever, Zika, dengue, chikungunya, and other deadly diseases. They’re the reason for the current outbreak of dengue fever in the Upper Keys, which has infected nearly 50 people.
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These arsehole mosquitoes only make up roughly 1 per cent of the Florida Keys’ mosquito population, but they’re such a problem that Florida Keys Mosquito Control typically budgets more than $US1 ($1.4) million a year to keep them under control. Most of the money go toward costly aerial spraying to eradicate the bugs.
The new experiment, scientists say, could serve as a cheaper alternative. Scientists altered these coming lab mosquitoes, which they call species OX5034, to produce female offspring which die off as larva. See, only female mosquitoes actually bite people for blood, because they need it to mature their eggs. Males just drink nectar, so they don’t pass diseases to people. These new mosquitoes’ female offspring will die before hatching and growing large enough to bite people.
Some researchers are pretty confident this new, creepy scheme will work — so much so that there’s another plan to release these genetically-modified guys in a county in Texas next year, too, according to Oxitec, the company behind these plans. Oxitec boasts about its successful track record, saying the approach has been proven to work in field tests in the Cayman Islands, Panama, Malaysia, and Brazil over the past three years. But environmentalists are raising important concerns about these plans.
No one is down with mosquitoes and no one is down with dengue. But some scientists are cautioning that this experiment could backfire. In a study published in Nature last year, a group of researchers warned this project could create hybrid wild mosquitoes through mating which could actually be more resistant to insecticides than wild mosquitoes and thereby worsen the spread of disease. That’s because while most female offspring from the genetically modified insects die off, between 3 per cent and 4 per cent of them generally survive into adulthood, and it’s not clear if they’re infertile.
Then, there are concerns about the ecological consequences of releasing the lab-tweaked insects. One recent field study on Brazil, for instance, showed that the genetically altered mosquitoes’ engineered genes had spread into wild populations of mosquitoes. If that pans out in the Florida Keys, it’s not clear what impacts that could have on insect food chains and ecosystems functioning. That’s troubling, especially because the Keys are home to a rich variety of plant life, as well terrestrial and marine wildlife. The sensitive ecosystems are already at risk because of threats like overfishing and development, and throwing another part of the unique region out of whack could have unforeseen consequences. It’s particularly hard to predict these outcomes because officials haven’t yet said exactly where the Franken-mosquitoes will be unleashed.
The plan to release the insects into Florida now has both state and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency approval, but environmental groups like the Centre for Food Safety and Florida Keys Environmental Coalition are pushing for that approval to be withdrawn. This has happened before: A previously planned release in the Florida Keys of a prototype version of Oxitec’s mosquito got pulled in 2018 because a referendum showed local residents opposed the plan.
“The Mosquito Control Board has an obligation to our community,” said Barry Wray, Executive Director of the Florida Keys Environmental Coalition, in a statement. “Not a vendor that’s products are risky and untrustworthy.”