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The Promise of Genetically Modified Mosquitoes

As the Zika virus spreads unchecked through the Americas, there’s been an urgent search for a way to stop it. In the public policy equivalent of a Hail Mary pass, El Salvador’s government even advised its citizens to avoid getting pregnant until 2018. Yet help may be on the way, NPR reports:

In Brazil, in the wake of mounting concern over Zika, Oxitec has announced it is expanding a program to release genetically modified Aedes aegypti mosquitoes in Piracicaba, a city about 100 miles northwest of Sao Paulo.

The company breeds and releases into the wild male mosquitoes that don’t produce viable offspring. When females mate with the GMO males, they lay eggs that hatch but the larvae die before adulthood. Oxitec says trials conducted in Brazil and other countries over the past decade show releasing bioengineered male mosquitoes can reduce the wild Aedes aegypti population by 90 percent.

We’ve mentioned Oxitec’s mutant mosquitoes before as a potential way to protect against dengue fever, but the Zika crisis might just end up being their breakout role.

Shipping and airplanes give the virus a way to spread—but just as technological innovation creates new problems, so too can it offer solutions. Let’s hope that even if mutant mosquitoes don’t work out, scientists are able to find an alternative in short order.

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  • Andrew Allison
  • FriendlyGoat

    I’d rather see humans implementing a reproductive tragedy on mosquitoes than those bugs contributing to reproductive tragedies on humans (and I don’t say that to try to be cute.) This whole episode is a reminder of how the human race can attempt innovation and cooperation in ways which ignore the boundaries of political subdivisions we draw on world maps. When the enemy is a virus or a bug, the regular world is “different”, no?

    • M Snow

      OK, but your comment was kind of cute.

  • Blackbeard

    This will never happen as the Greens are resolutey opposed to genetic modification of any kind and, in matters such as this, possess a strong veto power. Think I am exaggerating? Goggle the history of Golden Rice to see the true power of Green evil at work.

    • Kevin

      Maybe, but the fear of a new virus that causes birth defects might overwhelm this. The optics of deformed babies will be awful if they do.

  • Jim__L

    This is a good short-term solution.

    Long term, we’d be breeding a mosquito population that avoided mating with the GMO strain.

  • Lee Dryden

    Let’s suppose it works. What animal species will be affected if the supply of mosquitoes is dramatically reduced by the introduction of sterile males? This question needs to be addressed, even if it seems insignificant when weighed against the risks to these people. I would weigh the upside for people very heavily, but I would want to explore known environmental downsides before deploying it.

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