Genetically Modified Mosquitoes Have Come to the U.S. Will They Work?

A. de la Garza,  TIME,  2021.

“Our Mosquito Project Takes Flight,” reads a baby-blue billboard off US-1 in the Florida Keys, alongside an image of an insect tracing a path in the shape of a heart. Sponsored by the local mosquito control board and U.K.-based biotech firm Oxitec, the ad promotes a contentious plan to release millions of genetically modified Aedes aegypti mosquitoes here to test a new method of bioengineered pest control. It’s the first-ever such experiment in the United States, and one that has turned this chain of sun-soaked island communities into a battleground over scientific truth, government authority, and humanity’s right to modify nature. Even this bit of roadside signage is contested. Four months ago, the billboard carried a different ad, paid for by the Coalition Against GMO Mosquitoes, an organization with the mission of stopping releases of the genetically modified insects in the U.S., “WARNING!!!,” it read then, “GENETICALLY MODIFIED MOSQUITOES TO BE RELEASED IN THE KEYS!!” That release began in late April, when, after a decade of planning, regulatory review and debate, Oxitec workers and local mosquito control personnel added water to a dozen plastic boxes containing the company’s “Friendly™” mosquito eggs in six locations around the Keys, triggering their hatching process. Oxitec’s Aedes aegypti mosquitoes—which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) approved for use last year—are genetically modified to include a “self-limiting” gene that produces a fatal protein. The mosquitoes are raised in a laboratory in the presence of tetracycline, an antibiotic that prevents the added gene from activating. The mosquitoes’ eggs are then left to hatch in the wild, without the antibiotic. The gene kills immature egg-laying females—the only ones that bite—but the males reach maturity, mate with wild females, and pass on their faulty gene. Then their female progeny die, causing the bloodsuckers’ population to crash.

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