Genetically Modified Pests: Controversial Release of Suicide Mosquitoes

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The experiment will go down in scientific history as the first release of GM insects that could bite humans. What's scandalous about this field trial is that it was largely conducted in secret. Few people on Grand Cayman knew the mosquitoes were genetically modified. The local population was largely kept in the dark.

When the trials were made public a year after the first release of the insects, the locals wondered whether they'd been bitten by these potentially dangerous Frankenstein mosquitoes. Understandably, they felt taken advantage of. "I believe that we are the guinea pigs here," wrote a disgruntled islander on the website of the Cayman News Service. Another asked: "Are we considered so dim-witted and unlearned that we cannot participate in our own environment? Were we considered to be a calculated risk?" Nongovernmental organizations like GeneWatch, a British NGO, have condemned the experiments with GM mosquitoes.

Moths Too

The key question is about what scientists may and may not do. Can they simply release flying, human-biting laboratory-made creatures into the air? And who controls such activity if this is undertaken for a firm that seeks to profit from it?

Companies don't like divulging their plans, preferring to keep their technology under wraps, particularly when it comes to potential dangers. As such, the work of biotech companies must necessarily be the exact opposite of what scientific research ought to be: transparent. That's the crux of the matter.

Despite the Cayman PR debacle, Oxitec is moving forward undeterred. The yellow-fever mosquitoes from Milton Park have since been released in Malaysia. More trials are planned for inhabited areas there, because that's where yellow-fever mosquitoes thrive. They specialize in feeding on humans.

The genetically-modified creatures are also currently buzzing around near the city of Juazeiro in eastern Brazil. Mosquitoes are due to be released in other dengue-plagued countries too, including Panama, India, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. They could also soon turn up in Key West, Florida as early as March; preparations there are underway.

And that's just the mosquitoes.

Swarms of genetically modified pink bollworm moths, a plant pest in their natural state, have already been unleashed over the fields of Arizona. Oxitec's latest plan involves another genetically engineered moth, the diamond-back or cabbage moth, which it wants to release in England. In the future, it is hoped, these agricultural pests will likewise mate with naturally-occurring animals to produce dead offspring.

"Oxitec wants to become the next Monsanto," says Gerald Franz, the molecular geneticist at the International Atomic Energy Agency's insect laboratory in the Austrian town of Seibersdorf, referring to the American biotech giant that dominates the business in GM agricultural plants. Indeed, Oxitec already has a monopoly on genetically-modified insects.

Exploring the Potential Dangers

The findings of a study published in the renowned scientific journal PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases on Tuesday could well make life even more difficult for Oxitec. The paper was written by Guy Reeves and his colleagues. The 39-year-old Briton with curly blond locks is a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology in Plön, northern Germany.

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