Do you remember how some scientists, researchers, and individuals like Bill Gates were trying to release genetically modified mosquitoes into the environment? Well, that endeavor isn’t quite over – sort of. Two towns in Northern Australia have recently been gifted with 10-20 thousand Wolbachia mosquitoes – almost completely replacing mosquitoes naturally occurring in the outdoors.
Although the mosquitoes released aren’t exactly GM, they are still concerning, even if different than those from Oxitec. Oxitec is a British company responsible for the creation of the mosquitoes containing a gene designed to kill themselves unless given an antibiotic known as tetracycline. The company created this internally manipulated insect to help control agricultural pests and reduce insect-borne diseases like dengue fever and malaria.
These new mosquitoes released in Australia, however, are developed with a slightly different strategy. A bacterium named Wolbackiapipientis infects numerous insects species, and harnesses the ability to alter it’s hosts reproductive ability. When this happens, entire populations become infected within generations, and when the bacterium infects mosquitoes, the mosquitoes’ ability to pass on the dengue virus vanishes.
Needless to say, numerous scientists, researchers, and many individuals have expressed concern regarding the release of Wolbachia mosquitoes. The first GM mosquito release by Oxitec took place in the Cayman Islands in the Caribbean in 2009, only for a second trial to occur in 2010, where 6,000 mosquitoes were released in Malaysia for further experiments. Now, 10-20 thousand Wolbachia mosquitoes were released in Australia, drilling the environment with even more experimental endeavors. As mentioned, many people are not happy about this.
Some individuals, such as Daniel Strickman, point out the obvious discomfort surrounding the possibility that the bacterium could become out of control once released – in a way that does not naturally occur in nature. In addition, mosquitoes less susceptible to dengue infection could in turn become more susceptible to other viruses.
Unfortunately, no peer-reviewed scientific proof of the safety of such biotechnologies can be offered. Long-term effects have not been at all measured, and once these insects are released, they can not be recalled. Here are but a few of the questions and issues regarding GM mosquitoes (or any GM insect for that matter). For Oxitec:
- Will Oxitec need to acquire the free and informed consent of residents in Key West for the release of the GM mosquitoes? With the previous release of the mosquitoes in the Cayman Islands there was no public consultation taken on potential risks and informed consent was not given from locals.
- What could happen to the ecosystem and local food chain with the major decrease in the Aedes aegypti mosquito population?
- Tetracycline, the antibiotic Oxitec’s Wolbachia mosquitoes are supposed to have no contact with, is showing up in the environment. With tetracycline being present in the wild, these GE mosquitoes would survive and thrive.
- Mosquitoes can develop resistance to the lethal gene inputted by Oxitec. In fact, 3.5 percent of the insects survived to adulthood in laboratory tests despite carrying the lethal gene, according to Todd Shelly, an entomologist for the Agriculture Department in Hawaii.
- 0.5 percent of the released insects are female (the gender which bites humans); what happens to humans if bitten by the female mosquitoes?
- Who regulates releases, and who will be responsible in the event of complications – to any degree?
The truth is that we have no idea what the future holds for genetic modification and the potential impacts it has on the environment and public health. We know that the Wolbachia mosquitoes contain Wolbachia to replace the naturally occurring mosquito population, but what does that really mean for humans? We simply do not know the potential outcomes that could arise from such experiments.