Genetically modified mosquitoes! The whole concept reminds me of the Tracker jacker from the Hunger Games
The Tracker jacker from the popular teen novel series was designed for ill will, to show the people of Panem that the Capitol was very much in power. The tracker jackers were genetically modified wasps designed to attack anyone that disrupted their nests. Their venom was used to “hijack” memories as well as cause hallucinations and if stung multiple times it was a sure death.
Unlike the fictional tracker jacker, according to an article from the New York Times, the new genetically modified mosquitoes were originally designed with a lofty purpose, to combat dengue fever. Researches at Oxitec in Britain have inserted a gene to decrease native populations of Aedes aegyptae mosquitoes. The Aedes aegyptae mosquitoes are known to carry dengue fever, yellow fever and are now implicated in the “explosive spread” of Zika virus.
Zika virus infection during pregnancy has been known to cause birth defects like microcephaly and brain damage. Traditional mosquito control has not been effective as these mosquitoes often bite during the day and they do not require much water for breeding.
The gene that has been inserted into the biologically engineered bugs, prevents the “friendly Aedes aegyptae’s” new offspring from reaching the adult stage. These genetically engineered insects have actually been released by the hundreds of thousands in Brazil and one study revealed that introduction of this species can decrease native mosquito larvae populations by 80 percent.
This is very impressive, however, the biologist in me wonders what this modification will do to our environment? Will there be mosquitoes that mutate into a more virulent form, one that is more resistant to this modification, as we have seen with weeds and gmo crops? Or will the potential future loss of a pesky species like the mosquito, affect the populations of other species on our planet, like bats and other wild life that feed on these insects and perhaps humans? Will this affect pollinators, considering that we already have a bee population problem? On the up side, will this change the course of many mosquito transmitted illnesses? The jury is still out on this. Although science is rapidly progressing, I feel that the precautionary principal should apply. The impact of introducing new species into the wild cannot be reversed. Consideration for all of these factors should be taken into account.
According to this New York Times article, other methods of insect control are being considered including reopening the possibility of using DDT and also infecting large populations of mosquitoes with bacteria that can impede transmission of viruses.
To learn more, check out the article from the New York Times listed below.