Once upon a time there was a company called Oxford Insect Technologies, or Oxitec, that came up with a brilliant solution to reduce the spread of mosquito-borne illnesses: more mosquitoes. Specifically, legions of mutated male Aedes aegypti that have been genetically modified (and EPA-approved!) with a trait that causes their sperm to self-destruct once its fertilized an egg. Back in 2016, I dubbed them "Sexytime Frankenstein Death Mosquitoes," but sadly, the moniker never quite caught on.
While this sounds utterly ridiculous on the surface, it does make some sense: of the 3,500+ known species of mosquitoes on the planet, only the females of two species (Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus) actually bite humans to feed on their blood, which is how those diseases get spread in the first place. So you send in the Oxitec mutant males to breed with the human-hungry females, who lay eggs that aren't viable, and then they all die because mosquitoes have short lifespans anyway, and within a few months, no more infestations of mosquitoes who could kill you. In the meantime, there are still plenty of non-human-hungry mosquitoes in the world to keep the ecosystem working for the frogs or whatever else plan to feed on them. And Oxitec has actually seen success with this! (Although it's not a flawless scheme, either.)
…But the idea of Sexytime Frankenstein Death Mosquitoes still understandably freaks people out. And as Futurism reports, it's tearing one Florida town apart:
On a Friday afternoon in March, a Florida Keys resident named Virginia Donaldson told Futurism that two men in uniforms walked up to her house, said they worked for "mosquito control," and asked her to participate in a new pest control program.
Donaldson was in a hurry, so she says she signed their clipboard and watched as they hung a small, black mosquito capture cup from a tree in her yard.
"I don't even know what I signed. I just signed my name," she said. "I was like 'Oh, mosquito control, yeah whatever.'"
Donaldson, for one, says that after she learned more about the experiment, she decided that she didn't want to participate. A few days after the men in uniforms installed the cup on her property, she cut it down, put it in a plastic bag so the liquids inside didn't spill, and left it on a chair in her yard.
Donaldson wasn't the only outraged resident, either. But of course, the Oxitec reps had already gotten the permission they needed to setup the mosquito capture cups, so they tried to put them back up … which pissed people off even more, leading to accusations of trespassing and property damage. Which pissed people off even more. Which lead to some angry community meetings. Which lead to the discovery of a few other experimental oversights:
Oxitec's mosquito eggs — which will be delivered to the Florida Keys in "just-add-water" kits that it's distributing on residents' property alongside the collection cups — will include both females and males. But the females carrying the gene supposedly can't survive without the drug tetracycline, so they're expected to die off as larvae. The company says about 1,000 males will hatch from each kit over the course of two weeks. The problem is that tetracycline is commonly used as an agricultural antibiotic in the area's citrus groves.
The EPA prohibited Oxitec from releasing mosquitoes within 500 meters of anywhere tetracycline is being used — several times the distance a typical Aedesmosquito will travel in its lifetime. But at no point did the EPA require that water within the release site be tested for traces of the compound.
Kuzma was also troubled about the lack of caged trials and the failure to study whether the genetically hybridized mosquitoes that will emerge as Oxitec mosquitoes mate with the wild population are actually more likely to spread dengue — a possibility that no one has bothered to check or study.
Meanwhile, part of the regulatory process was veiled from the public eye. Only two pages of documentation about the project were available on the EPA's website during the designated 30-day public commenting period in 2019, which garnered over 31,000 comments opposing the experiment and just 56 supporting it.
Futurism has the whole story, which is like a dark sci-fi sitcom set in Florida.
Residents Furious at Release of 500 Million Gene-Hacked Mosquitoes [Dan Robitzki / Futurism]
Scientists have found a smart new way to fight mosquito-borne illnesses: more mosquitoes. [Thom Dunn / Upworthy]
Image: Alvesgaspar / Wikimedia Commons (CC-BY-SA 3.0)