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A genetically modified Aedes aegypti mosquito. (Image: Oxitec via iO9)

A genetically modified Aedes aegypti mosquito. (Image: Oxitec via iO9)

Genetically modified mosquitoes could be released in the Florida Keys in an attempt to combat the rising threat of disease.

Climate change and globalization are two major factors behind the spread of chikungunya and dengue fever, reports Florida’s Sun-Sentinel, two diseases that lack vaccines and have no cure. According to the World Health Organization, over 2.5 billion people on the planet (40 percent of the population) are now at risk from dengue. Cases of dengue are increasing, as is the frequency of explosive outbreaks. The WHO estimates that 500,000 people are hospitalized with severe dengue every year and about 2.5 percent of those affected die.

Though U.S. cases are rare, these diseases can be brought in by travelers and easily spread by female mosquitoes – specifically Aedes aegypti, the “yellow fever mosquito.”

“An arriving person would be infectious for several days,” said Michael Doyle, executive director of the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District, “and could infect many of the local mosquitoes. Within a few weeks you’d likely end up with several infected mosquitoes for each infected visitor.”

Florida is warm, wet and tropical – the perfect habitat for breeding mosquitoes. Until now, its mosquito population has been kept in check by the use of insecticides. Unfortunately, the perpetual spraying has caused the bugs to evolve, and Aedes aegypti is now resistant to four of the six insecticides used in the Keys.

British biotech firm Oxitec has patented a breed of mosquito that kills its own larvae, and it has used these GM insects to destroy wild mosquito populations in several countries. The insect’s DNA has been spliced with a with a cocktail of genes from the herpes simplex virus, E. coli bacteria, coral and even cabbage. When the Frankenstein bugs mate with wild mosquitoes, their offspring die.

In 2012, Oxitec released 3.3 million modified mosquitoes in the Cayman Islands. According to Oxitec spokesman Chris Creease, in six months, 96 percent of the mosquito population was suppressed.

If the Federal Drug and Food Administration approves Oxitec’s GM mosquitoes, they could be released in the Florida Keys this spring.

However, the company is receiving major pushback from locals who are opposed to the plan. Oxitec only intends to release its GM males into the population – which do not bite humans – but there is a chance females can be released as well. If a GM female bit a human, the fear is that the Frankenstein DNA would be injected into her victim.

The company claims that even if this happened the DNA would not enter a human bloodstream, but it hasn’t stopped 130,000 people from signing a petition to stop the release of the mosquitoes.

Phil Lounibos, a mosquito researcher at the Florida Medical Entomology Laboratory, told the Sun-Sentinel that he believed Oxitec’s claim that the consequences of being bitten by a GM mosquito would be unlikely. “But to say that there’s no genetically modified DNA that might get into a human,” he said, “that’s kind of a gray matter.”

He added that “the GMO issue still sticks as something of a thorny issue for the general public. It’s not even so much about the science – you can’t go ahead with something like this if public opinion is negative.”

The FDA has announced that no field tests will be allowed until it has “thoroughly reviewed all the necessary information.”

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