You may have heard by now from popular news sources about the possible introduction of male genetically modified mosquitoes in Key West to reduce the aedes aegypti mosquito population, which can spread diseases. [If you haven’t, google it—it’s all over the news].
The minute I saw this, my reaction was quite mixed. While some applaud the use of science to rid the world of terrible diseases, others resent the idea of “playing God” by tweaking genomes; and of course there’s plenty of others whose opinions lie somewhere in the middle.
Of course, any story that pops up like this was written to garnish attention. Approaching it logically, however, a few key things come to mind. Firstly, it is curious that the organization doing the research and providing the mosquitoes isn’t actually located in the United States—Oxitec is a British biotech firm, so some entity here in the States must be pushing for this.
Secondly, if the first premise is true, that begs the question: why? The Keys do get a lot of mosquitoes, but in this case they’re only targeting a specific species, so it’s not like they’re trying to annihilate the whole population (In any case, that would be a terrible idea-as much as I hate mosquitoes myself, they’re an important part of the aquatic ecosystem, and also provide food for bats, spiders, birds, etc.). The publicly released information basically states it’s a preventative action to reduce dengue fever and chikungunya diseases, carried specifically by this species, which have no cure. There currently isn’t a problem with these diseases right now in the States, but apparently this particular mosquito species is resistant to most of the insecticide sprays, so other methods of population control are necessary.
That brings me to my third point. The evolution of species favors the fittest: how can we be certain that all of the offspring of these mosquitoes will definitely, absolutely, without a doubt, perish from the face of the earth? Just because they were engineered to have their offspring die? Sounds like a great plan, but as an engineer myself, I don’t trust “foolproof” ideas. I know I could be making a mountain out of a mole-hill here, so prove me wrong, but entertain the “impossible”: what if one, just one, happens to survive? Then what? Then we’ve unleashed the potential for a genetically modified mosquito to breed, producing female offspring with modified DNA that will, in fact, be able to bite humans? Up to that last point, I think I was ok with this plan..now, I might head off and write a sci-fi novel on bio-warfare..or perhaps just a new superhero comic. Spiderman, anyone?