Millions of GM mosquitoes to be released to fight chikungunya, malaria in US

Millions of GM mosquitoes to be released to fight chikungunya, malaria in US
A UK biotech company is planning to unleash millions of genetically modified male mosquitoes in the Florida Keys.

Scientists claim mosquito population can be reduced by 95% through this new method. Keep reading to know more about this genetically modified (GM) mosquitoes.

Written by Longjam Dineshwori |Updated : June 24, 2020 7:56 PM IST

As monsoon season sets in, you will hear mosquitoes buzzing around your head. They are not just annoying but carry a host of viruses that can cause fatal infections like malaria, dengue and chikungunya. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), mosquito bites cause one million deaths every year, and make seven hundred million people fall sick.

Mosquitoes breed in stagnant water and rainy season is the perfect time for them to grow. While most countries turn to insecticides to kill mosquitoes, a British-based biotechnology company has come with a new idea to kill the pests unleashing millions of genetically modified (GM) mosquitoes into the natural ecosystem. Oxitec, the company conducting the experiment, claims that mosquito population can be reduced by 95 per cent through this new method.

How this new method will help fight mosquito menace

For this new method, scientists are using the Aedes Aegypti mosquitoes which spread diseases like dengue, chikungunya and zika. They conducted the experiment on male mosquitoes who don't bite but survive on nectar and plant saps. The genome of these mosquitoes was altered to create a new strain which carries a protein that kills female offspring before its adulthood. These lab-altered insects will mate with wild females and produce artificially weak offspring that would never grow up. This way the GM males help reduce future mosquito populations.

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Oxitec has been testing the new modified strain for more than a decade, but the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) approved the plan only last month to conduct a pilot project that will run until 2022. The GM mosquitoes were released in Jacobina, Bahia, Brazil, where the population of mosquitoes reduced drastically up to 85 per cent. Florida has also granted the company an experimental use permit. Now, the company is planning to unleash millions of genetically modified male mosquitoes in the Florida Keys. Trials will also be carried out in Harris county in Texas next year.

Environmentalists raise concern about new risks

The proponents of Oxitec's method say it will do away with the mass spraying of insecticides, which could also lead to death of several non-target insects, such as bees. They also claim that as these males would never bite people, the GM mosquitoes pose no risk to public.

However, some environmentalists and a section of scientists have raised concern about the impact on ecology with the new strain. They argue that as the surviving mosquitoes may have more genetical variety, this method would eventually lead to creation of super wild bugs. Opposing the study, many critics protested in front of the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District office. Because of its marsh rich environment, Florida is a hotspot for mosquito-related diseases.

Putting all this controversy to rest, Oxitec said that it has been studying the new strain for past 18 years and has extensively checked the genome of new generation. The company claims that when the altered genes are transferred to the next generations, majority of them die before adulthood. Therefore, it poses no threat to the public.