Genetically Modified Mosquitos Released in the United States

First Genetically Modified Mosquito Released in the United States, Nature (News in Focus), Emily Watz, presented by Professor Joel Eissenberg commenter at Angry Bear.

Biotech firm Oxitec launched a controversial field test of its insects in Florida after years of opposition from residents and regulatory complications. The issue at hand is whether it is ethical to eliminate a species even though it causes human contagions. This is the first time science has moved to eradicate a carrier of a virus rater than eliminate the transmission of the virus (small pox and polio in the US).

Fighting infectious diseases can be difficult. Our toolkit includes drugs and vaccines to combat the diseases often times transmitted by bites. However, there is an arms race between the bugs and the drugs (and with COVID-19 and flu, the vaccines).

In some diseases, the transmission requires an insect or mammalian vector. Recent technology advances in genome editing have enabled so-called “gene drives” that are, in principle, capable of driving a host species to extinction at least in a region of the planet.

Gene drives to extinguish the anopheles and aedes mosquito vectors for malaria, yellow fever, zika, Dengue and others have been in development for years, and now one has been released in Florida. A bit of knowledge and history:

Anopheles is a genus of mosquito first described and named by J. W. Meigen in 1818. Approximately 460 species are exiting, while over 100 can transmit human malaria. Only 30–40 commonly can transmit parasites of the genus Plasmodium (unicellular eukaryotes that are obligate parasites of vertebrates and insects) which causes malaria in humans in endemic areas. 

The other type of mosquito is the Aedes a genus of mosquitoes inhabiting tropical and subtropical zones. It is now found on all continents except Antarctica. Some species were spread by human activity. Aedes albopictus is an  invasive species spreading to the New World and the United States by the used-tire trade.

From the link First Genetically Modified Mosquito Released in the United States:

“The genetically engineered males carry a gene that passes to their offspring and kills female progeny in early larval stages. Male offspring won’t die, but instead will become carriers of the gene and pass it to future generations. As more females die, the A. aegypti population should dwindle.”

The decision to release a GMO animal is certainly fraught with ethical complications. Unlike plants, mosquitoes and other animals (rats, kissing bugs, deer ticks) are not sessile organisms and can cross international borders. There are also genetic kill-switches that could be used to stop gene drives short of complete extinction, but those are untested in the field.

 Is it ethical to deliberately drive a species to extinction? Who gets to vote on such a decision? Weighed against that is the suffering and deaths of millions of humans, many of them children. Compassion or hubris?