Why millions of genetically modified mosquitoes could be released across US

The US could soon be swarming with genetically altered mosquitoes after the Environmental Protection Agency approved a plan to test the insects.

It is hoped the new altered mosquitoes will ward off their natural, disease-causing counterparts.

Biotechnology company Oxitec has developed altered Aedes aegypti mosquitoes which have been genetically modified so that males, which do not bite, are released into the wild and mate with females, which do bite.

Their offspring, either male or female, never survive to reach maturity, according to the company.

Last year millions of mosquitoes were released in the Florida Keys in a pilot project last year and the EPA on Monday gave the green light to extending the project in Florida as well as expanding it into four counties in California, pending approval from the states’ regulators.

Oxitec head of global public affairs Meredith Fensom said while the EPA approval covers one Florida county and four in California and the release of more than 2billion genetically altered male mosquitoes across the states, the launch is planned to be much more limited – covering only the Florida Keys and expanding to Visalia in Tulare County, California.

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Biotechnology company Oxitec has developed genetically altered mosquitoes that they hope will reproduce offspring that will not age to maturity.

Oxitec said the aim was to reduce the transmission of harmful diseases, such as dengue, Zika, yellow fever and chikungunya.

Although the Aedes aegypti, which is an invasive species, make up just a small fraction of the total mosquito population in Florida, they account for a large number of the cases of human diseases, Fensom said.

Florida has seen a dengue outbreak as recently as 2020.

The species is growing in California but so far there have not been confirmed cases of dengue, chikungunya, Zika or yellow fever spread through the insect, according to the state’s health officials.

Hikers bit by mosquitoes
Florida had a dengue outbreak in 2020.

The goal of the new trial is to study the genetically altered mosquitoes in two different environments, Fensom said.

The genetically modified mosquitoes the company produces are males with a “self-limiting gene,” she said.

While the difference can’t be detected by the naked eye, the modified insects produce male offspring and female offspring that cannot survive, Fensom said.

It’s hoped that over time, as the female population decreases, so will the overall population.

However, the move has been met by some opposition from environmental groups who are concerned about the potential impacts of the genetically altered insects, USA Today reports.

Environmental groups worry about the impact of genetically altered insects.

“This is a destructive move that is dangerous for public health,” said Dana Perls, food and technology program manager with Friends of the Earth.

A major concern with the expansion of the Florida project, according to Perls, is the lack of widespread, peer-reviewed scientific date from the past year.

Peer-reviewed data is expected to be released, according to Fensom, but Perls said there was a worry about a potential risk without a more rigorous and public review.

There’s a chance that the experiment could produce a hybrid species that is difficult to eradicate.

The lack of confirmed transmission of diseases like dengue, chikungunya, Zika or yellow fever from Aedes aegypti in California was also of concern to Perls: “There’s no immediate problem and there are a lot of unknowns,” she said.

Perls added that without the data it was unclear if the mosquitoes and their offspring would act as predicted by Oxitec.

There was a concern a hybrid species could be produced which could be difficult to eradicate, Perls said.

Fensom said the insects had been designed so the population would die out over time.

“Once you release these mosquitoes into the environment, you cannot recall them,” Perls said. “This could, in fact, create problems that we don’t have already.”

This story originally appeared on The Sun and has been reproduced here with permission.

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