The first U.S. field test of genetically modified mosquitoes for population control has begun in Florida. Over the next three months, about 144,000 mosquitoes engineered by the UK-based biotech firm Oxitec are expected to be set free. For release over the next two years, the first of up to 750 million approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Oxitec, the firm based in Abingdon, U.K., that developed the mosquitoes, has previously field-tested the insects in Panama, Malaysia, Brazil, the Cayman Islands. But till now, due to regulatory decisions and push back from the Florida residents, no genetically engineered mosquito had been trialed in the U.S. The country has previously allowed tests of a genetically engineered pink bollworm in Arizona and diamondback moth in New York, both developed by Oxitec.
According to Anthony James, a molecular biologist at the University of California, Irvine, “When something new and revolutionary comes along, many people’s immediate reaction is to say: ‘Wait. “So the fact that [Oxitec] was able to get the trial on the ground in the United States is a big deal.”
The primary purpose of the trial is to test whether the mosquitoes are effective at reducing populations of invasive Aedes aegypti. Dangerous diseases are transmitted to people through this species. The Florida Keys Mosquito Control District, which has partnered with Oxitec, has said only 4% of the mosquito community in the Keys these species make up but is responsible for nearly all disease transmission. It has become increasingly resistant to available pesticides.
The modified mosquitoes are all-male according to Oxitec and carry a gene that makes female mosquitoes dependent on an antibiotic not available in the animals’ environment, thereby killing all of the male’s female offspring. Only for five weeks, adult mosquitoes live, and just the females bite. The firm expects that its modified males can spread the female-killing insert through the population, and by this, the potential disease vectors can be reduced in the region. If successful, the mosquitoes could be used in place of pesticides in control efforts.