Genetically Modified Mosquitoes to Released in California


Mosquitoes have riddled the Earth for millions of years, since the Jurassic period. These dinosaurs are known to carry diseases that can spread to humans, and some can be fatal. Mosquitoes spread diseases like Malaria, Chikungunya fever, Dengue fever, and Yellow fever just to name a few. The threat may be lessened pretty soon, however. 

Playing with Fire

British biotech company, Oxitec, has engineered genetically modified mosquitoes to help fight against disease. Using fresh mosquito eggs, scientists are adding a new gene in the species. Scientists are injecting the eggs, using microscopic needles, with proprietary synthetic DNA. Once injected, the test subjects are taken care of by technicians for four days. The “injection survivors”, dubbed by Oxitec,  then go through numerous tests to make sure the modifications were successful. 

The Federal government has approved the genetically modified mosquitoes to be released in California. The private company Oxitec says the genetically modified mosquitoes will save half the world’s population. The invasive Aedes aegypti mosquito spreads diseases such as Yellow fever, Chikungunya fever (CHIK), and Dengue fever. Oxitec captured Aedes aegypti mosquitoes from Mexico’s Chiapas state. The mosquitoes produced by Oxitec will look to breed with the Aedes aegypti to spread the new gene that causes the Female offspring produced to die. This would ensure the population is controlled. 

Oxitec has trademarked these mosquitoes as “Friendly” mosquitoes. Oxitec was granted permission by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on March 7. Approved was the release of genetically modified mosquitoes on 29,400 acres in the counties of San Bernardino, Fresno, Stanislaus, and Tulare. The initial release will take place in Tulare County in the Central Valley, across 48 different locations. Oxitec proposed they will release 3.5 million mosquitoes a week. This also came as a surprise to residents. 

“Friendly” Bugs

There has been some concern about the genetically modified mosquitoes to be released. The residents of Tulare county have yet to be consulted or give consent to this project. A member of the non-profit organization, California for Pesticide Reform, Angel Garcia, was surprised when he saw flyers for a hiring event. Oxitec was looking to hire field and lab technicians and put up flyers around cities in Tulare county. Garcia reported this and concern had arisen. 

Scientists outside of Oxitec have also shown concern in the project. They fear the genetically modified mosquitoes will breed stronger hybrid mosquitoes that will only make matters more dangerous to human beings. Oxitec has assured the public that this will not happen as the “Friendly” mosquitoes are made to breed strategically.

Easing Concern

These lab-produced mosquitoes will spread the “self-limiting” gene and any Female offspring from this introgression will die. This means the gene will also see its own way out of the population and the DNA will disappear.  The scientists at Oxitec also made the mosquitoes more vulnerable to insecticides than the Aedes aegypti mosquito. Even with the reassurance, EPA has required Oxitec to monitor neighborhoods for mosquitoes with the synthetic  DNA until the gene can not be found for 10 consecutive weeks. 

Another reason to be wary is the fact that the Central Valley has a large agricultural industry. The farmers of the land use antibiotics for their citrus groves and livestock. One of these antibiotics is tetracycline which is also used by Oxitec to raise its bugs. When tetracycline is exposed to the larvae of a genetically modified mosquito it could cause the Female offspring to survive. Having done their research, EPA has required that Oxitec not release any “Friendly” mosquitoes within 500 meters of any commercial citrus grove, livestock facility, or human waste treatment plant. EPA expressed that they are more than willing to shut down the project if problems do arise. 

Yielded Data Use

Oxitec will use the data from this experiment in California to gain commercial approval for their “Friendly”  mosquitoes from the EPA. This achievement would surely increase the private company’s value. Oxitec is owned by private company Third Security. Third Security was founded by billionaire and former lawyer, Randal J. Kirk. Kirk came to wealth by founding and investing in pharmaceutical companies and more recently has been focusing on genetic engineering projects. 

The true aim of the “Friendly” mosquitoes is to help stop the spread of diseases that are not so friendly to humans. However innovative, who knows what this project could bring. The hopes are that it will control the Aedes aegypti mosquito population, the fear is that it will increase it. Only time and nature will tell.