British biotech firm Oxitec has successfully begun its experiment of releasing genetically hacked mosquitoes in open air to reduce the population of disease spreading mosquitoes in the Florida Keys region. According to Oxitec, these genetically engineered mosquitoes can become an alternative to pesticides, reducing and ultimately eliminating the species of disease carrying mosquitoes. But releasing an artificially engineered mosquito species in the air? Naturally, this controversial action came with lots of backlash and protests. Will it even work?
Oxitec’s Aim: Curbing The Aedes aegypti Mosquitoes
The Florida Keys is a strip of islands off the Southern tip of Florida. The Aedes aegypti mosquito species make up about 4% of all the mosquito species of Florida, and this is the species that is responsible for diseases like Zika and Dengue. What is interesting about these insects is that only the female mosquitoes bite; according to Oxitec, they plan to reduce the population of female Aedes aegypti mosquitoes by releasing male Aedes aegypti mosquitoes with an additional OX5034 gene. When these mosquitoes mate with wild female mosquitoes, this artificial gene will pass on to their offspring.
The special characteristic of this gene is that female mosquitoes cannot survive. Hence, only male Aedes aegypti mosquitoes will survive, dramatically reducing the population of biting and disease transmitting female mosquitoes. While this experiment, if it works, may be a great chemical free way to solve the mosquito related diseases problem in Florida, many experts, activists, and locals are sceptical of it.
Controversies Regarding Oxitec’s Experiment
For starters, people have been highly doubtful of the success of Oxitec’s experiment because of the lack of information and proof regarding the method. In fact, Oxitec has been fighting controversies for the past decade, and has only now proceeded to finally release the mosquitoes. The main issue is that Oxitec has no proof that the experiment will even work! Instead of experimenting in controlled lab conditions, they are releasing the genetically hacked mosquitoes in Florida Keys directly. If their idea doesn’t work, that is if the female mosquitoes born from the gene hacked mosquitoes survive, Florida’s mosquito problem will not be solved and instead a new problem will be created; a new species of mosquitoes flying wild in Florida.
But that’s not all; the locals of Florida Keys have also complained that Oxitec has been invading their privacy during the experiments, which, according to them, are not even for the betterment of the community but for Oxitec to test if their methods work. Some citizens have stated that Oxitec employees tricked and bullied them into participating in the experiment, which they did not even agree with after finding out what it actually was.
Activists and experts also disagree with Oxitec sabotaging nature, especially because there have been no caged trials-the company never proved that the trials are even safe! Oxitec has denied any allegations against its project, and is still confident that the experiment will work. Only time can tell whether Oxitec is right or not.