Concerns Are Raised About Genetically Modifying Insects

While the jury is still out with their verdict of genetically modified organisms in foods, scientists are already moving on to modifying new organisms. These organisms are mosquitoes.

Created in British company Oxitec’s lab, these altered mosquitoes’ purpose is to drastically cut the number of mosquitoes in highly populated areas; Thereby reducing the number of diseases caused by mosquitoes, including the incurable Dengue fever.  So far, trials conducted in the Grand Cayman Islands have experienced population cuts of almost 80%.

The genetically modified insect has been altered to contain a florescent gene for identification.

There have been two ways of altering the mosquitio. The most effective way of altering the mosquito is having a female kill switch. Scientists first release the modified mosquito males, who will mate with the wild female mosquito. As she lays the eggs, the female offspring will not survive. This quickly diminishes the mosquito population for it is the female mosquito who is the infector of many diseases.

Scientists are worried about the release of these genetically modified insects because once they have been released there is literally no way to bring them back in. There is also valid concern with the effect this drop in mosquitoes will have on other animals niche’s. Oritec’s response is to never fear, for their goal of this is not to eradicate mosquitoes as a whole, but simply to diminish the population in certain over populated areas. This applies to areas where it appears as if there are swarms of mosquitoes year round. One has to wonder if even just diminishing the population to about 20% of what is was will have consequences. Also on scientist’s minds is if the modified bug has had enough field trial time to count as sufficient review time. Even with the short field trials there was no major publication that the field trials were even being conducted. Unless you count a pamphlet and a five minuet spot on the evening television as sufficiently warning the communities in which the field trials were being conducted.

Something Out Of a Science Fiction Movie

Similar to the problems with genetically modified crops, we also run the risk of mosquitoes developing immunity to these kill switch female genes. Or as James Lieks fears, some 50 foot super mosquito. Our only option then would be genetically modifying another organism and hoping they do not turn on us.

Some scientists have clearly blown off the negatives of this experiment relating it to the drama associated with genetically modified foods. “You don’t eat insects,” said Dr. James of the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health. “This is being done for a good cause.”

Positive Effects

While the release of insects has its negative attributes, we have to look at how the problem is being dealt with at the moment. In the Grand Caymans, for example, sections of the town are “fogged” with a dangerous insecticide. This insecticide used is associated with breathing difficulties and has to be done in rotation in the affected cities.

Next are the concerns of the illnesses. Mosquitoes are known for being carriers of Malaria and other diseases. The aim of the experiment is not for the eradication of malaria, or at least not yet. However, Dengue fever, which has no vaccination and no cure, is the primary virus target. Dengue fever bears resemblance to the flu’s symptoms with fever, headache, muscle and joint pains. It is known that dengue hemorrhagic fever is the life threatening form and many in the Grand Caymans contract this illness. It is primarily a tropical disease but has been noted as infecting places including Pakistan and our own Florida. This eradication could be a breath of fresh air to people who have contracted these viruses, lived in these places their entire lives, or who are even allergic to the mosquito.

In conclusion, one has to wonder if this is totally necessary, and if the positive effects are worth the risk of the negative effects. With the health of most of the southern hemisphere at risk for infection, many diseases possibly on the verge of eradication, and the promise that there would be less mosquitoes, the genetically modified pest it looking like a wonderful alternative to a writer who is allergic to the bug.

-Andrea Melton

Works Consulted

Ira Flatow.” Mosquitoes Engineered To Kill Their Own Kind”. npr.com. Web. 6 November, 2011

http://www.npr.org/2011/11/04/142024622/mosquitoes-engineered-to-kill-their-own-kind

Andrew Pollack. “Concerns Are Raised about Genetically Engineered Mosquitoes.” nytimes.com. Web. 7 November 2011.

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/31/science/concerns-raised-about-genetically-engineered-mosquitoes.html?_r=1&pagewanted=2

James Lieks. “Mess with Skeeters, Brace for The Worst.” Startribune.com Web. 6 November 2011 http://www.startribune.com/local/133298713.html

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