Science Has Given Us the Power to Undermine Nature’s Deadliest Creature: Should We Use It?

E. Herold,,  2021.

British biotech company Oxitec has engineered male mosquitoes to have a genetic “kill-switch” that could potentially crash the local population of Aedes aegypti, at least in the short-term. The modified males that are being released are intended to mate with wild females. Males don’t bite; it’s the female that’s deadly, always seeking out blood to gorge on to help mature her eggs. After settling her filament-thin legs on her prey, she sinks a needlelike proboscis into the skin and sucks the blood until her translucent belly is bloated and glowing red. The kill-switch will ensure that the female offspring die before they reach maturity and thus, be unable to reproduce. Should a small number of them survive, they will be rendered unable to bite. The genetic modification means the proboscis, the sickle-like needle that pierces the skin, won’t form properly. The idea is that the lack of females for the males to mate with, over a few generations, will collapse the local population of Aedes aegypti. The modified mosquitoes are the second genetically engineered insect to be released in the U.S. by Oxitec. The first was a modified diamondback moth, an agricultural pest that doesn’t bite humans. But with the mosquitoes, there are many questions about the long-term effects on wild ecosystems, other species in the food chain, and human health. With the Keys initiative, there has been vociferous opposition from environmental groups and some local residents, but some scientists and public health experts say that genetically modified insects pose less of a risk than the diseases they carry and the powerful, indiscriminant pesticides used to combat them.

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