The FDA may soon approve the releasing of GMO mosquitoes in Florida in an effort to prevent the outbreak of dengue, Chikungunya, and other diseases related to these insects. If this event goes as expected by the FDA and certain parties with vested interests in the project, hundreds of thousands of genetically modified mosquitoes will be flying over the Florida Keys in several weeks.
If this bit of news is giving you the shivers wait till you read further.
Earlier this year, 6 millions of these mosquitoes were released in Piracibaca, one of the cities in Brazil in which there are more outbreaks of related illnesses.
It didn’t work in Jurassic Park and it may not work in Florida. While modifying mosquitoes genetically sounds less frightening than bringing dinosaurs back to live using these same mechanism, it shouldn’t appear to be so. By taking a look at what happened in China several decades ago we can more or less discern that this FDA action (if it happens) shouldn’t be welcomed. In the 1950s and under the government of Mao Zedong, a campaign was made in China to kill all the sparrows so they wouldn’t eat the harvests.
The campaign was successfully unfortunately for the country’s citizens. What happened next was that given the scarcity of sparrows, insects started to reproduce at an extraordinary rate. With so many insects available in the fields, nearly all harvests were destroyed and more than 30 million people starved to death.
That being said, getting rid of a type of animal isn’t just a matter of killing all of them. This action brings a lack of balance to nature in general bringing undesired – and far worse – consequences than the first issue that was causing problems in the first place.
Click here to find out how does Oxitec make genetically modified mosquitoes?
The reason why GMO mosquitoes are thought to be beneficial for this purpose is because they will mate with Aedes aegypti female mosquitoes (the type which causes the most diseases to humans) and at the time of breeding, the offspring will die soon afterwards which won’t allow them to reproduce and extend for generations without end.
While this sounds like a brilliant idea, it really isn’t. In fact, many residents in Florida seem to be now more worried about the consequences these mosquitoes might bring to the population than about dengue itself. Many advocates are fighting to backup this procedure but they are being completely ignored to this day.
Scientists themselves such as Heather Ferguson from the University of Glasgow acknowledge how little they know about mosquitoes’ lives and reproduction. In fact, a similar attempt was made four decades ago when sterile mosquitoes were thrown into the wild just to…keep on their rate of growth.
Although little is known about how mosquitoes engage in mating and reproductive purposes themselves, some scientists and people – particularly those connected with the company in charge of this business – think all it takes to drop down the rates of dengue is letting GMO mosquitoes do what they are supposed to do.
Going back to previous attempts, it is thought that they failed due to them being less competitive than their non-sterile peers. It is commonly hypothesized that mosquitoes that have undergone some unnatural change process such as these ones and possibly the GMO ones as well, won’t be a match to normal ones as their abilities and mating skills will also be changed for the worse.
The bad thing of all this plan is that GMO mosquitoes could have devastating consequences in the environment and for us humans in general, pretty devastating actually. In the laboratory where most if not all factors are held under control it results that GMO mosquitoes do mate regular mosquitoes and then offspring die soon afterwards.
However, in large scale projects where there are many other factors and stakeholders involved, we should be more cautious about this measure. In real life, GMO mosquitoes won’t be left alone with female Aedes Aegypti. There will be many other prey, predators, humans, and the ecosystem in general that will be exposed to this new factor.
In fact, the European Food Safety Authority has certain guidelines on what should be considered before releasing any type of GMO insect into open land. This agency has recognized that some problems might follow such as an inflow of new types of mutant genes into the species, their mating and other types of interactions with other types of organisms besides the target insect, and their impact on agriculture as well as the effects they could have should they bite a human organism.
Some possible effects of these types of creatures on humans may be develop due to them such as allergies, rashes, etc. Viruses could also become more potent affecting human health even more. As if this wasn’t enough, other organisms (which could be dangerous for humans) could inhabit the lands previously occupied by the Aedes Aegypti.
That being said, releasing these GMO mosquitoes is anything but safe for us and for the environment – at least until proven otherwise. However, the parties involved in the business won’t take any of these issues into account.
Along with the problems that these new “species” may bring, the reversibility of such an action should be considered. Is it possible to retrieve the environment to normality after they have caused the intended or unintended change? It seems there isn’t an answer to this and other questions.
Interesting is also the fact that a single company is behind all of this dengue-eradication strategy. Oxitec is a company that profits every time a government pays it to release thousands of GMO mosquitoes to reduce mosquito population. Right now, they have done three trials, one in the Cayman Islands, another in Malaysia, and one in Brazil.
The company has driven away from what would normally be called having an ethical conduct. In Malaysia it promoted its “product” saying they were sterile mosquitoes instead of genetically modified ones. There was in fact little regulation and asking of population consent before sending these specimens free into the habitat. Given the fact that only a few weeks have passed since this happened, we haven’t witness any results – either beneficial or harmful – yet.
When playing God we must be very careful as once Pandora’s box is open there is no looking back.