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Florida’s Genetically Modified Mosquito War

A biotechnology company has received approval to release 750 million genetically modified mosquitoes in the Florida Keys. What could go wrong?

Florida is broadly defined by three things: Heat, bugs and chaos. The three feed upon each other — the heat brings more bugs, the bugs bring more massive invasive iguanas, the iguanas bring more chaos. The environment thrives on entropy. 

Sometimes, though, the solutions to the problems of Florida are simply different forms of the same three themes. The solution to the iguana problem, for example, is to give Floridians the freedom to slaughter iguanas on their property. A forthcoming solution to Florida’s mosquito problem radiates the same energy. In an attempt to quell the state’s disease-carrying mosquito population, state officials have given British biotechnology company Oxitec permission to release 750 million new, genetically modified mosquitoes. 

As mentioned earlier, Florida has long had a bug problem, but it’s dramatically worsened in recent years. As an entomologist explained to the Tampa Bay Times earlier this summer, increased heat and precipitation has produced a particularly severe mosquito season. Following a 42 percent budget cut to mosquito control in parts of Florida around 2011, the mosquito population has continuously grown year after year. 

It sounds predictably absurd to attempt to treat a mosquito problem with more mosquitoes, but the Environmental Protection Agency and the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District have signed off on it. And so, in 2021, Oxitec will begin unleashing their mosquito creations in the Florida Keys. 

The science behind the release is somewhat sound, at least in theory. According to the BBC, only female mosquitoes bite. Though male mosquitoes could potentially carry disease, they don’t present a risk to human health as they have no means of spreading it. For that reason, the mosquitoes released by Oxitec will be exclusively male. More importantly, though, they’re genetically modified. These “Friendly™ Aedes aegypti mosquitoes,” as Oxitec calls them, are designed to pass on a gene that would kill off any future female offspring before they reach biting age. In trials, these modified mosquitoes have led to a 95 percent reduction of wild Aedes aegypti mosquitoes after 13 weeks.

Notably, this breed of wild mosquitoes is invasive in Florida. Beyond being annoying and carrying diseases like Zika and dengue, they also serve no ecological purpose. Most problematically, wild mosquitos in parts of Florida have become resistant to pesticides, thus increasing the risk of disease-spread. 

Some Florida residents are understandably concerned, particularly that releasing these genetically modified mosquitoes will only increase the mosquito population, potentially even creating some type of powerful, mutant mosquito offspring. Following a notice on the project made in 2019, the EPA received 31,235 comments from members of the public. In May 2020, the EPA published a 125-page report addressing each area of risk, followed by a 57-page risk-assessment report from scientists at the EPA concluding that the project would present “no unreasonable adverse effects to man and the environment.” The project has also been approved by the Centers for Disease Control and Florida’s Department of Health, and will be independently monitored by the CDC and the University of Florida. 

This is all to say that, while fears surrounding the mosquito release are reasonable, adequate research and analysis had been given to the project before it was approved. Genetically modified mosquitoes might sound terrifying, but it may ultimately be the necessary solution to the problem without further introduction of chemicals that could breed more resistance or impact the surrounding environment. 

Though it seems that a decrease in government oversight largely contributed to the state’s mosquito problem in the first place, this major undertaking by Florida and the federal government in conjunction with Oxitec may possibly present a solution. In other words, releasing 750 million mosquitoes to kill off other mosquitoes is classic Florida-style chaos, but it just might work.