Meddling with an organism’s genes to make our lives easier may not be the best way of putting scientific resources to use, as movies like Jurassic Park have already demonstrated. However, it seems difficult in real life as UK-based biotechnology company, Oxitec, whichdevelops genetically modified insects to assist in insect control, is going ahead with the plan of releasing over one billion genetically modified mosquitoes across 2,428 hectares in Florida and Texas.
These genetically modified versions of Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, who are all male and hence will not bite, will be released in order to reduce the number of female Aedes aegypti mosquitoes that carry diseases like dengue or the Zika virus. The aim of this project is that when the GM mosquitoes with a “self-limiting” genewill mate with their female counterparts, they will release this modified gene. The gene will be passed on to their offspring, causing female baby mosquitoes to die before they can reach adulthood and hence,curbing the spread of deadly diseases like Dengue, Zika virus etc.
The programme has faced backlash from local population and environment groups who have dubbed it as ‘Jurassic Park Experiment’. The project has been in the making for quite a few years now and last year, the controversy was revived after local officials in Florida approved the release of 750 million GM mosquitoes.
In an interview to Guardian, Jaydee Hanson -policy director for the International Center for Technology Assessment and Center for Food Safety -had said that the experiment is risky because they do not know what could go wrong, since Oxitec ‘unlawfully’ refused to seriously analyze environmental risks that this experiment can bring. Meanwhile Barry Wray, executive director of the Florida Keys Environmental Coalition had told Guardian that people in Florida do not consent to the genetically engineered mosquitoes or to being human experiments.
Sceptics of this experiment have also pointed out how there has been no independent assessment of this experiment to ensure that it carries no risk for the local population and ecosystem. There are also fears of how the experiment may have long lasting effects in the future as the genetic diversity between GM mosquitoes and wild mosquitoes could give birth to a more robust species of mosquito.
Despite such apprehensions, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services have given a go ahead to the project. Before releasing the GM mosquitoes in Florida, Oxitec had already conducted trials in Brazil and Cayman Islands, which according to them were ‘successful’.