Genetically modified mosquitoes proposed for anti-dengue fight in Key West

British biotechnology company Oxitec Ltd is trying to convince the locals in Key West to use genetically modified mosquitoes in their fight to eradicate dengue fever in the area. What could possibly go wrong?


  1. If we could fight the “unnatural is wrong” knee-jerk reaction (remember vaccines?) for a second, one must admit that this is a very fascinating and graceful application of GM. 

  2. I’d never considered the use of Mosquitoes to spread a cure before, it’s actually pretty genius.  If it works for diseases, hack it for cures!

    Learning from nature, and all that.

  3. From the article:

     “Have there been studies of what can happen if someone is bit by one of these mosquitoes?” said Key West realtor Mila de Mier.

    Only the females bite see , and only the males will be genetically modified.  Mila obviously hasn’t given more than a minute’s rational thought into the matter, or else she doesn’t have Internet access.  In either case, should she be the mouthpiece of the opposition?

    I’m disappointed in the quality of the journalism here: is Reuters sacrificing its standards in the interests of stirring up a controversy?  If there are serious potential ecological concerns, we should be focusing on them.  However, I bought the “surgical tool” angle in the article.  The whole “controversy” smells like astroturf.

    1. Oh, yes. It is well known that genetic material from males and females cannot mix and combine.

      Oh, wait…

      But it is also known that newly modified genetic material is much more stable and less prone to mutation than the old, estabilished one.


      1.  Dude, genetic material from a female and a *sterile* male indeed cannot combine.  Also, I would rather be bit by a genetically-altered mosquito than a Dengue mosquito any day.

  4. To look at this from a Darwinian perspective, communities which, out of fear or superstition, refuse the modified mosquitos (or vaccines, for that matter) will have a higher death rate and be less likely to pass along their genes to the next generation.

    1. Sorry, not to be a dick, but two of my big pet peeves here.

      1. Darwinism is a stinky old obsolete approach to evolution. Darwin wasn’t even a strict Darwinist (weird, right?). Lets all stop using this word unless we really mean it.

      2. Thats not how natural selection works. Floridians are a stable population. Further, there is no “I don’t like GM mosquitos” genotype.

      You could make an argument that it would be possible for a population with a strong selective pressure from dengue fever to eventually develop a higher incidence of dengue resistance. If the pressure was strong enough, and/or the population was under heavy strain from another source, it could reduce the effective population size. Or they might find that they’re kids can only work in the field until they die at 25, so families have more children and the reproductive rate actually increases. Or anything! Weird stuff happens, the point is you really can’t make any assumptions on what evolution will do (guessing at what it has done is hard enough). 

  5. What would likely go right? What are the reasonable worst-case scenarios of this plan happening versus not happening? This reads like irresponsibly incomplete science reporting sprinkled on a stinking pile of fear mongeeing on Reuters’ part, why is it re-posted here uncritically?

  6. Releasing a lot of sterile males into a population is a very low-impact way of nobbling the breeding pool, and because a mozzie female mates only ones, those blank-firing boys will buzz around spreading the loveless love.  Could nix a generation in one go.  They’re not modified to do anything weird, just fuck, fail, and die.

    The worst that could happen?  The mozzies turn out to be vital in the food chain, but heavy spraying ticks that same box.

    Why do people live in an infested swamp, anyway?

    1. Some people are poor and live in a slum in Rio. In Singapore dengue is controlled by inspections and $400 fines for leaving standing water on your property – but most people don’t want that degree of state interference. In an uncontrolled environment the mozzies breed.

    2. Why do people live in an infested swamp, anyway?

      Because the alternative is often desert.

  7. actually I think this genuinely is a really good idea Xeni (with respect) maybe you or Maggie could look into how it’s done, go visit or Skype them and do a write-up? I think it’s a really interesting and workable idea, and good science to boot. I’ve met some of the people from this firm and they’re passionate about helping to eradicate an unpleasant and sometimes fatal disease. I think it’s a worthwhile endeavour they’re engaged in which deserves a more thorough writeup than simply dismissing with a one-liner like “what could go wrong” – they’ve an interesting story to tell – why GM? – why no vaccine? – it would be a disservice to knee-jerk the conclusion.

    1. Heck… I’m all for eradicating mosquitoes, disease carrying or not! Mosquitoes love me, I just cannot return the love! *scratch* *scratch* *itch* *itch* *scratch* *scratch*

      I was quite chocked to learn (thank you Wikipedia!) some time back that we have Malaria Mosquitoes in my country (Finland). I knew there had been some malaria outbreaks even in the beginning half of 1900’s… I just thought that the Malaria Mosquitoe was gone. Nope, just the malaria… meaning that it could come back. Nice… I can just see the little disease bearing blood suckers targeting me.

      1. Yes, England used to have malaria also, called “Fen Ague” in the middle ages. I think in the case of dengue fever the virus is specific to one strain of mosquito host, so that wiping out the carrier mosquito would not impact the rest of the ecosystem significantly – there are other mosquitos that don’t transmit the virus which would fill the niches and provide food for higher predators. It’s also not necessary to actually make the disease carrying mosquitos extinct to prevent the disease itself spreading between people – if the mosquito population is thinned out enough so that a mosquito rarely finds an contagious person and an uninfected one within a few days of each other, then the viral disease will vanish even if a few mosquitos are still around. 

        1.  Yeah, they are also an African species, not native to the keys. Seems they got spread around after WWII. It’s an invader.

          It’s bizarre to me to see people choosing chemicals and lobbying for this invasive species. It’s what happens when you make decisions based on fear rather than facts. Sad.

  8. Science News just had an informative feature article on this very topic:

    What could possibly go wrong? Well, for starters the mosquitoes might not survive too well out in the wild:

    “A small test on Grand Cayman in 2009 confirmed that RIDL lab mosquitoes could survive the shock of the wild. “They hadn’t seen a predator in 100 generations,” Alphey says. “They hadn’t seen rain. But they did OK.” And a bigger test of free-flying mosquitoes on the island in 2010 demonstrated that they could fool the local females into mating, thus reducing the population by 80 percent.”

  9. I’ve had dengue in the past, and the rest of my family – 2 kids and partner  had it in April. While we were in the infectious diseases ward at the hospital, the doctor told us that a medicine that ‘cured’ it had just successfully come out of clinical trials. I don’t know how long until it hits the market, but I would prefer medicine to genetically tampered with mosquitos thanks.

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