Fri, 07 Dec 2012 01:21 UTC
It might sound like something out of a low-budget horror film, but the US Food and Drug Administration really is considering whether or not they should allow scientists to send thousands upon thousands of genetically altered insects into the wild.
If all goes as planned, mosquitos modified by some serious Frankenstein treatment will be introduced into the Florida Keys and ideally mate with skeeters that carry the deadly dengue fever, passing along in the process a fatal birth defect that will hopefully eradicate the offspring before birth. From there, scientists say they expect the population of Aedes aegypti mosquitoes infected with the dangerous disease will be decimated in only a few generations without causing any major implications for the native ecosystem.
"The science of it, I think, looks fine. It's straight from setting up experiments and collecting data," Michael Doyle of the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District tells the Associated Press.
No vaccination against dengue fever is currently available in any part of the world, and although the mortality rate associated with it is low, it's still a serious concern. In the Florida Keys where the economy relies on tourism, an epidemic of any sort could be catastrophic. Some fear that sending mutated mosquitos into the environment could have grave implications as well, though, and are asking for more thorough testing before the FDA makes a decision. Of course, it doesn't help the scientists' case that it will take several rounds of releasing genetically modified mosquitos in order for their plan to work.
"The public resistance and the need to reach some agreement between mosquito control and the public, I see that as a very significant issue, outside of the (operating) costs, since this is not just a one-time thing," Phil Lounibos of the Florida Medical Entomology Laboratory tells the AP.
The plan to put lab-altered insects into the ecosystem is expected to not harm any humans since the female mosquitos that bite won't become infected. Real estate agent Mila de Mier tells the AP that she's still concerned, though, and clearly isn't the only one: her petition on Change.org, "Say No to Genetically Modified Mosquitoes Release in the Florida Keys," has garnered over 117,000 signatures.
"Even though the local community in the Florida Keys has spoken - we even passed an ordinance demanding more testing - Oxitec is trying to use a loophole by applying to the FDA for an 'animal bug' patent," reads the petition. "This could mean these mutant mosquitoes could be released at any point against the wishes of locals and the scientific community. We need to make sure the FDA does not approve Oxitec's patent."
"Nearly all experiments with genetically-modified crops have eventually resulted in unintended consequences: superweeds more resistant to herbicides, mutated and resistant insects also collateral damage to ecosystems. A recent news story reported that the monarch butterfly population is down by half in areas where Roundup Ready GM crops are doused with ultra-high levels of herbicides that wipe out the monarch's favorite milkweed plant."
"There are more questions than answers and we need more testing to be done," it continues.
Health officials believed that dengue fever was eradicated entirely years ago, but a handful of cases have been discovered in the Florida Keys in 2009 and 2010. If humans are infected, they can experience extremely high body temperatures, swollen nodes, full-on rashes, vomiting and, in some cases, death.