I have spent the past three years reviewing control methods for the African mosquito Aedes aegypti, the infamous vector of yellow fever, five strains of dengue fever, chikungunya, today Zika and tomorrow likely some as-yet-unknown African forest virus. This Aedes aegypti species is a hardy urban pest, known to entomologists as the cockroach of mosquitoes.
A new and promising control method has been developed over the past decade, a modern variation on the classic sterile male technique invented for controlling livestock pests. The company Oxitec (a subsidiary of Intrexon) has harnessed lab methods used in modern fruit fly genetics to make healthy but reproductively dead-end males (important note: Males don’t bite). The mosquito dads beget offspring who make so much of a natural protein that they die before maturing into biting adults.
It’s a brilliant way to halt the spread of disease without applying harmful pesticides to our children, pets, homes, gardens and the natural environment. Sounds great, so what’s the issue? The mosquito has a special bit of DNA added to make its offspring overproduce the natural protein. That defines it as a genetically modified organism, or GMO.
The public and the scientific community are rightly suspicious of GMOs. Even scientists knowledgeable about GMO technology are unwilling to give blanket endorsement of GMO release outside the lab, and that includes me.
A key question in my life concerns the risks of harm from synthetic pesticides. My wife’s family owns a farm. After the farm manager got cancer of a type associated with pesticide exposure, the family took the farm organic. We now eat organic produce whenever we can. GMO pesticide-resistant crops, and their attendant overuse of pesticides, drive much of my concern with GMO technology. And, in case you can’t tell, I don’t trust big corporations to place my family’s health over their bottom line.
At the same time, I also have to recognize that some of our best life-saving drugs are made by GMOs. Every diabetic is kept alive by insulin produced by GMO organisms. To me, blanket condemnation of GMOs would be like banning all machines (including cars, cell phones and coffee-makers) because machine guns are a deadly member of the machine class. Like machines, it’s not the GMO technology that’s problematic, it’s the particular application.
In this case I have taken the time to understand how researchers at Oxitec modified this mosquito. It does not and cannot transmit its modification to humans, our pets, wild birds or even other species of mosquito. You could eat a bowl of them for breakfast every day with no ill effect. Indeed, birds and fish thrive doing exactly that. This mosquito is a nutritious, but self-extinguishing evolutionary dead end. the Environmental Protection Agency and Food and Drug Administration scientists have independently reached the same conclusion. I consider this particular application of GMO technology especially safe – though not all GMO applications by any means. But this one, yes.
Now here’s your multiple choice question for the day:
Which is the least risky option for a pregnant mother and her fetus? Ban GMO mosquitoes, increasing the likelihood of Zika infection and risk of permanent brain damage to her fetus, while forcing both her and her developing fetus to endure repeated exposure to ineffective insecticides banned in the European Union and shown by scientists to cause autism and cancer in lab animals; or allow the release of GMO mosquitoes so the next generations of progeny will die in the rain-gutters and storm drains from protein imbalance.
How would I feel if the Mosquito Control District were to release hoards of these GMO male mosquitoes (and maybe the odd biting female) in my yard, exposing me, my family, my pets, the backyard songbirds and my pregnant neighbor down the street, to a cloud of transgenic Aedes aegypti? To be completely honest, I would be grateful.