Genetically Modified Mosquitoes Could End Disease Transmission

Published April 19, 2016

Mosquitoes are responsible for the sickness and death of millions of people around the world each year, making them one of the most dangerous species on Earth, but some scientists are now saying they may have found a novel way of eradicating one commonly found type of mosquito: the introduction of a genetically modified mosquito.

Field trials in Brazil are using a genetically modified form of the A. aegypti mosquito, a species that is responsible for spreading dangerous diseases—including malaria, dengue, and zika—in an attempt to wipe out the dangerous insect. Oxitec, a biotech company that specializes in insect control, has developed a mosquito that produces males whose offspring die in the larvae stage, reducing the target mosquito population by more than 90 percent.

Oxitec says other species of genetically modified mosquitoes currently under development will produce females with low fertility or females that produce male-only offspring.

While mosquitoes may never be completely eradicated, research indicates reducing mosquito populations by 90 percent would be enough to stop epidemics such as zika, dengue, and most other mosquito-borne illnesses.

Using genetically modified mosquitoes to eradicate or greatly reduce mosquito populations would be more effective than attempting to find and treat every mosquito habitat, and this strategy would have less impact on beneficial insect populations compared to widespread use of toxic pesticides.

Because there could be unintended consequences to using genetically modified mosquitoes, some scientists have suggested introducing genetically modified mosquitoes on Hawaii’s Big Island as a test case. Such a strategy would limit consequences without having an impact beyond the area of study.

Organic Farmers Fight Eradication

Mischa Popoff, a former organic farmer and former U.S. Department of Agriculture-accredited organic crop inspector, says eradicating mosquitoes is a great idea but organic farmers fear the introduction of any genetically modified organism [GMO] near their crops could pose a threat to their crops’ “organic” certification.

“They’re wrong, and I can’t stress this enough: There is no threat from any GMO to any organic crop,” Popoff said. “The United States is the most litigious society on Earth, yet, despite the widespread planting of GMO crops, there has never been an organic farmer that has sued for GMO contamination.” 

Kenneth Artz ([email protected]) writes from Dallas, Texas.