GMO mosquito plan sparks outcry in Florida

January 31, 2015 by Kerry Sheridan
A British company's plan to unleash hordes of genetically modified mosquitoes in Florida to reduce the threat of dengue fever and other diseases has sparked an outcry from fearful residents

A British company's plan to unleash hordes of genetically modified mosquitoes in Florida to reduce the threat of dengue fever and other diseases has sparked an outcry from fearful residents.

As of Friday, more than 145,000 people had signed a petition at urging regulators to "say no" to allowing the tourist-friendly fishing and diving haven to become "a testing ground for these mutant bugs."

The company, Oxitec, said it wants to try the technique there in order to reduce the non-native Aedes aegypti mosquitoes in south Florida and beyond.

"They are more than just a nuisance as they can spread serious diseases such as and chikungunya," Oxitec said on its website.

The process involves inserting a gene into lab-grown, male Aedes aegypti mosquitoes. The added DNA makes it impossible for their offspring to survive.

Since the males do not bite—only the females do—the lab-grown males would be released to mate with wild females. These releases would take place a few times per week.

"Both the released mosquitoes and their offspring will die—they do not stay in the environment," Oxitec said, describing the approach as "a new tool in the fight against mosquitoes."

Trials conducted in the Cayman Islands and Brazil showed a more than 90 percent drop in mosquito populations, according to the company.

Based on those results, the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District agreed to work with Oxitec, which has built a breeding lab in the Florida Keys.

But the project still needs approval from the Food and Drug Administration to move forward.

If it does get the green light, the mosquito releases could begin in a few months.


Opponents cite concern for the environment, and worry whether other creatures—including bats and people—might be affected by the introduction of the mosquitoes.

"Where is the third-party, peer-reviewed research on effectiveness and safety of GM mosquitoes other than Oxitec's own claims of success?" asks the petition.

"Dengue fever has been absent from the Florida Keys for years, which indicates the current methods of control and public education are working. What's the rush for this radical approach?"

However, health experts say that dengue is still a concern, as is chikungunya virus, which causes debilitating pain, fever and joint aches.

In July 2014, a Florida man who had not recently traveled outside the country became the first person in the United States to get the mosquito-borne chikungunya virus locally, and authorities say such cases are likely to become more common.

Pest control

As a means of pest control, the concept of releasing sterile males into the environment is not new, according to Joe Conlon, a technical advisor for the American Mosquito Control Association, which has not taken an official position on whether or not to support the Oxitec project.

In the 1950s, flesh-eating parasites known as screw worm flies were sexually sterilized via radiation, and the male flies were released in Florida to cut down the population.

"It worked. It worked wonders," Conlon told AFP.

Irradiation doesn't work as well in fragile mosquitoes, but genetic modification can help curb breeding of a mosquito that reproduces mainly near people—in standing water and even inside houses.

It is not a means for total eradication of , nor is it meant to substitute for pesticides, though some hope it could lead to less use of chemicals in the environment.

Conlon attributed the opposition to the Oxitec plan to a lack of understanding on the part of the US public.

"It's going to be a hard sell to the American public, who get their ideas about genetic issues by watching 'Jurassic Park,'" he said.

"When they are presented with something they don't understand, they immediately fear it."

Explore further: Millions of GMO insects could be set loose in Florida Keys (Update)

Related Stories

First domestic case of chikungunya in Brazil

September 17, 2014

Brazil's authorities on Tuesday reported the first domestically contracted cases of the mosquito-borne chikungunya virus, prompting the government to announce it was stepping up attempts to control the disease.

Biotech firm's GM mosquitoes to fight dengue in Brazil

August 27, 2014

It's a dry winter day in southeast Brazil, but a steamy tropical summer reigns inside the labs at Oxitec, where workers are making an unusual product: genetically modified mosquitoes to fight dengue fever.

Smcientists explain spread of chikungunya vector

January 8, 2015

The tropical disease chikungunya began twisting Western tongues in July when the first locally transmitted case was reported in Florida. Spotted in the Caribbean just last year, the disease spread explosively throughout the ...

Recommended for you

Study shows how giraffe assassin bugs outwit spider prey

October 26, 2016

(—A biologist at Macquarie University in Australia has discovered the secret behind the giraffe assassin's ability to catch and kill spiders in their webs. In his paper published on the open access site Royal Society ...

New analysis of big data sheds light on cell functions

October 26, 2016

Researchers have developed a new way of obtaining useful information from big data in biology to better understand—and predict—what goes on inside a cell. Using genome-scale models, researchers were able to integrate ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Jan 31, 2015
Hey Brits, test Bermuda first. Florida has giant baby eating snakes to protect.
5 / 5 (3) Feb 01, 2015
This technology needs to be used in Florida asap to crash the population of Aedes Aegypti mosquitoes before chikungunya spreads to Florida. (Aedes Aegypti is an invasive species anyway.) We only have a year or so before Chikungunya becomes endemic in Florida. This is a painful and occaisonally fatal disease, and suitable vacine is not yet available.
not rated yet Feb 01, 2015
In a pragmatic, dollars-and-cents way understood by those who live in the Keys - I think a few of them might be involved in the tourist industry - what would be the predictable effect of outbreaks, widespread and recurrent, of those sort of untreatable and debilitating mosquito-borne diseases?

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.