Oxitec’s genetically Modified Mosquitoes

Gaurav Kumar

The firm Oxitec has announced to release more than 20 million mosquitoes that are genetically modified in Florida Key. This method was never used before in the U.S. before, hence it is the first trial by Oxitec in America. The main objective of this project is to reduce the population of a community of mosquitoes found over here known as Aedes aegypti that is termed responsible for the spread of the Zika disease over these regions. This species of mosquito is held responsible for several diseases like Zika, Dengue, Chikungunya, and yellow fever. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has also issued permits for this project. According to Andrea Leal, the executive director of Mosquito Control District of Florida Key, there are lots of harmful effects of insecticides on garden bugs and insects that help in the pollination of flowers and plants. These genetically modified mosquitoes can be considered as “living insecticide” as the company Oxitec claims that this method is much more effective than insecticides and is also environment friendly.

The biotechnology company Oxitec has announced to release of genetically modified mosquitoes in Florida in order to reduce the populations of wild and disease-carrying mosquitoes in that region. In April 2021, the company Oxitec successfully placed the mosquito egg boxes at several locations in Vaca Key, Ramrod Key, and Cudjoe Key in accordance with the population of wild mosquitoes in those regions. It is assumed that more than 12 thousands male mosquitoes would be hatched from those eggs.

History of Oxitec’s Genetically Modified Mosquitoes

Oxitec, originally Oxford Insect Technologies is a biotech firm based in the UK that is formed to develop genetically modified insects for assisting insect control. Oxitec was founded by Luke Alphey and David Kelly in the year 2002 while they were working for Oxford University. Then it was purchased by Intrexon, a U.S.-based company at a value worth $160 million. Genetically modified mosquitoes have been used successfully in India, Panama, the Cayman Islands, and Brazil to reduce the population of Aedes aegypti mosquitoes. In the year 2019, this technique was successfully used in Sao Paulo, Brazil wherein almost 13 weeks there was the reduction of almost 95% of the Aedes aegypti species over that region. This type of technique was also used to reduce diamondback moth and pink bollworms in the U.S. that are harming the crop fields there (Simmons GS, McKemey AR, Morrison NI, O’Connell S, Tabashnik BE, Claus J, et al., 2011).

Working of Oxitec’s Genetically Modified Mosquitoes

The fight to reduce the population of pests has been occurring since the dawn of humankind. The mosquito can also be considered the worst enemy of humans as there are several diseases that can be spread by these mosquitoes. Oxitec has created only male-modified mosquitoes that are made to carry some lethal gene by engineering on them. When the female mosquitoes mate with these male-modified mosquitoes, that lethal gene is surpassed to their offspring. This lethal gene doesn’t affect the survival of the male mosquitoes; however, it prevents their offspring who are female from building some required protein in their bodies resulting in them dying before they become adults (Nathan Rose, Head of Regulatory Affairs of Oxitec). Since we know that only female mosquitoes feed on human blood and those male mosquitoes feed on nectar, so with the help of these genetically modified mosquitoes, the offspring of this mating results in producing only male mosquitoes that would never pass any disease to human as they don’t bite. In this way, the genetically modified mosquitoes that are prepared in the lab will help to reduce the wild female mosquitoes and control their population or replace them with non-biting mosquitoes over each and every region.

A box labelled Oxitec is placed near a plant
Oxitec has placed boxes of its mosquito eggs in undisclosed locations in the Florida Keys to protect against vandalism.
Credit: Oxitec 2021

Advantages of Oxitec’s Genetically Modified Mosquitoes

The Oxitec’s genetically modified mosquitoes can be helped in balancing the ecosystem as there would be no use of insecticides or pesticides for reducing the population of wild and disease-carrying mosquitoes.  The usage of insecticides and pesticides helps in the reduction of mosquito population as well as harms the environment wherever it is spread. They harm the plants and trees along with several other small and big creatures that are essential for the existence of the environment. As the population of these wild mosquitoes decreases there would be fewer fatal diseases over time. There are no side effects of genetically modified mosquitoes on humans.

EPA and FDA both are recognized agency in the U.S. has announced that Oxitec’s genetically modified mosquitoes are very safe to use and has negligible harm to human or environment. The same successful demonstrations were done in Brazil before that poses no harms to human or the environment. Also, these Oxitec’s genetically modified mosquito never bites a person and poses no effect on the home or properties of a person. These modified mosquitoes are safe, non-biting, non-allergenic, non-toxic, and self-limiting (Meredith Fensom, Head of Global Public Affairs of Oxitec).

Disadvantages of Oxitec’s Genetically Modified Mosquitoes

These genetically modified mosquitoes may develop or carry some unknown pathogens that could harm humankind as there has not been done much testing and demonstrations of these mosquitoes. There is also a concern that these genetically modified mosquitoes may mutate in the future and start reproducing on their own and may produce a stronger and deadliest species of mosquito to humankind. This technique of controlling the population of wild mosquitoes is very costly and time-consuming.

There are lots of environment-friendly techniques for destroying mosquitoes like the mosquito trap. Also, there is no use in applying this method to those regions where there is no human; the insecticides may be used in these regions. Also, there are lots of pesticides that help in destroying the pests along there is no harm to humans or the surrounding environment.

References

Emily Waltz (03 May 2021), “First genetically modified mosquitoes released in the United States”, accessed on 16th May 2021, <https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-021-01186-6>

Fu G, Lees RS, Nimmo D, Aw D, Jin L, Gray P, et al. (March 2010). “Female-specific flightless phenotype for mosquito control”. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 107 (10): 4550–4.

Gwen Filosa (01 May 2021), “Genetically modified mosquitoes have landed in the Keys. Here’s what you need to know”, accessed on 16th May 2021, <https://www.miamiherald.com/news/local/community/florida-keys/article251031419.html>

Leftwich PT, Koukidou M, Rempoulakis P, Gong HF, Zacharopoulou A, Fu G, et al. (October 2014). “Genetic elimination of field-cage populations of Mediterranean fruit flies”

Nicoletta Lanese (May 2021), “First genetically modified mosquitoes released in US”, accessed on 16th May 2021, <https://www.livescience.com/amp/first-genetically-modified-mosquitoes-us.html>

Simmons GS, McKemey AR, Morrison NI, O’Connell S, Tabashnik BE, Claus J, et al. (2011-09-13). “Field performance of a genetically engineered strain of pink bollworm”

Taylor White (12 April 2021), “First GMO Mosquitoes to Be Released In the Florida Keys”, accessed on 16th May 2021, <https://undark.org/2021/04/12/gmo-mosquitoes-to-be-released-florida-keys>

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