Bioethics Blogs

GM Mosquitoes: Risks and Emotions

For several years, a British company called Oxitec has been proposing a strategy for controlling a species of mosquito, Aedes aegypti, that humans have accidentally carried from Africa to other parts of the globe, thereby also spreading a risk of dengue fever and other diseases for which A. aegypti is a vector. One of the places where A. aegypti has taken up residence is Key West, Florida, and in 2009 and 2010 it contributed to an outbreak of dengue there. A. aegypti has developed resistance to the insecticides that have been the first line of defense against it, and local authorities in Key West now want to try Oxitec’s approach: releasing millions of male A. aegypti that have been genetically modified so that when they mate, their offspring will receive a gene that prevents them from developing into adults unless they are bathed in the antibiotic tetracycline. If enough males are released that a high percentage of the females living in Key West mate with them, then the population will crash. According to Oxitec’s research, a population reduction of as much as 90 percent is possible.

Polls in Florida suggest that a modest majority of residents think the plan is acceptable, but at recent hearings some have been vehemently opposed. Some of the concerns seem to be about health risks: “We don’t want to be guinea pigs,” said one resident. Other concerns are about the possibility of unknown environmental risks — that if the mosquitoes disappear, something worse might take their ecological place. Perhaps organisms that consume mosquitoes might suffer.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.