A British biotech lab has released huge numbers of genetically modified mosquitoes in an effort to combat dengue fever. But locals, some say, were not adequately informed of the experiment -- and now a debate has erupted over the potential dangers to humans.
They buzz very, very quietly. That infuriating high-pitched whirring that can rob you of your sleep on summer nights is not part of their repertoire. At this small laboratory near the English university town of Oxford, maintained at a steady 28 degrees Celsius (82 degrees Fahrenheit), the mosquitoes emit no more than a light purr. Their victims can't hear them it until it's almost too late.
Insectophiles might find these animals pretty because of the white markings on their dark bodies. Only the dried drops of blood -- horse blood -- on the gauze lining of their cages reveal how these animals feed.
The insects in question are female yellow-fever mosquitoes, some of the most dangerous animals on the planet. In addition to the illness after which they were named, they also transmit the dengue virus.
Dengue fever is on the rise worldwide and spreading faster than any other insect-borne viral disease. Every year, female mosquitoes infect at least 50 million people in tropical and subtropical regions (the males don't bite). More than 20,000 of their victims -- most of them children -- succumb to their illness.
The mosquitoes at the lab near Oxford serve a rather different purpose: To save human lives. Scientists have implanted a gene they hope will wipe out these mosquitoes' wild cousins. When males from the lab mate with wild females, their larval offspring die within a short space of time. The lab insects have been produced to commit infanticide.
Not Exactly a Villain
Yet something of a scientific thriller has developed around these designer animals. Were anyone to turn it into a horror movie, the story would go something like this: At the heart of the tale there are the managers and scientists at a British biotech firm. These are the bad guys. Their crime: Secretly exposing the unsuspecting inhabitants of a faraway Caribbean island to mutant mosquitoes; a flying army of horrific creatures hungry for people to prey upon. The company -- of course -- is only interested in the huge profits it hopes to make. And then there are the good guys; upstanding researchers and idealistic activists determined to ruin the bad guys' evil plans.
By this interpretation, Luke Alphey would be the head villain of the story, though his boyish looks and lean stature wouldn't exactly typecast him for the role. At the most, his occasional braying laughter would fit the character. Alphey, 48, is the co-founder and chief scientific officer of Oxitec, an Oxford University spin-off. Oxitec headquarters is located in a brick building covered with wild grape in Milton Park, an industrial zone by the road leading to the famous university town.
It was Alphey, a genetic engineer, who dreamed up the idea of the novel insects while he was at Oxford. Today, standing next to the blood-spotted mosquito cages in a disposable lab coat, he defends himself, his company and his mosquitoes. "It was the right time to go out into the field," he insists.
Alphey is referring to the fall of 2009, when he and his colleagues released their designer mosquitoes on Grand Cayman, an island in the Caribbean. The following year they released over three million more of these genetically-modified (GM) mosquitoes.