Results are in from a pilot study in Florida, where millions of genetically engineered mosquitoes were released into the wild. Some referred to it as the “Jurassic Park” experiment when it was announced last year, but—so far—everything is going to plan, according to UK biotech firm Oxitec. Per Nature, the experiment is part of a long-term plan to develop new tools in the fight against the invasive Aedes aegypti mosquito, which can carry dengue, Zika, and other gnarly viruses. Genetically modified male mosquitoes were released into the wild to mate with the local females; as hoped, affected female offspring died before reaching adulthood, and male offspring carried the engineered gene. By the way, the engineered males and their offspring do not bite humans.
Ultimately, the hope is to suppress if not eradicate A. aegypti; however, this phase was focused on ensuring that the method works. In addition to preventing reproduction, the gene was successfully passed to succeeding generations of males for three months, and then it disappeared from the local population. Oxitec’s work is EPA-approved, and it works closely with state wildlife agencies. Similar experiments will soon begin in California. “I like the way they’re going about it,” Thomas Scott, an entomologist at UC-Davis, told Nature. “They’re doing it in a systematic, thoughtful way. So I’m encouraged.”
Unsurprisingly, not everyone is excited. Per SF Gate, reporting last month on upcoming trials in the Bay Area, one environmental activist referred to local residents as “lab rats” for Oxitec. Program supporters say they understand public concerns, but A. aegypti is also a growing concern. “It does not belong here, and it is environmentally disruptive,” Rajeev Vaidyanathan, director of US programs at Oxitec, told the Guardian. He added that the female mosquitoes feed during the day, when the use of pesticides puts essential pollinators like butterflies and bees at risk. That’s a big reason states are looking for new tools to control invasives and protect public health. (Read more Aedes aegypti stories.)