Genetically Modified Pests: Controversial Release of Suicide Mosquitoes

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It does indeed seem unlikely that the lab animals could cause damage. Nonetheless Alphey admits his technique isn't perfect yet, and GM females may therefore also be released accidentally. And we have to take him at his word that the larva-killing protein definitely can't be injected into the human blood stream. Unfortunately, like so much else, he can offer not peer-reviewed scientific proof.

Alphey says Oxitec spoke to people on Grand Cayman, and that the locals didn't express concern about being bitten by GM mosquitoes. He claims the islanders hadn't even asked him about it. "It's not really for us to tell them what their concerns should be," he says.

Fundamental Questions

It is precisely this attitude -- this lack of openness -- that isn't exactly making Oxitec many friends. Guy Reeves says: "One has to answer these fundamental questions that most people will have before releasing the animals."

The geneticist doesn't think Oxitec's techniques are "particularly risky" either. He simply wants more transparency. "Companies shouldn't keep scientifically important facts secret where human health and environmental safety are concerned," he says.

Reeves himself is working on even riskier techniques, ones that could permanently change the genetic makeup of entire insect populations. That's why he so vehemently opposes Oxitec's rash field trials: He believes they could trigger a public backlash against this relatively promising new approach, thereby halting research into genetic modification of pests before it really gets off the ground.

He's not alone in his concerns. "If the end result is that this technology isn't accepted, then I've spent the last 20 years conducting research for nothing," says Ernst Wimmer, a developmental biologist at Germany's Göttingen University and one of the pioneers in this field. Nevertheless he says he understands Oxitec's secrecy: "We know about the opponents to genetic engineering, who have destroyed entire experimental crops after they were announced. That, of course, doesn't help us make progress either."

Translated from the German by Jan Liebelt

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