Genetically Modified Mosquitoes Are Creepy

On Tuesday, NPR ran a story on genetically modified mosquitoes. The representative for the company Oxitec immediately admitted that these mosquitoes are not super intelligent and don’t have Transformers-like capabilities. As disappointed as I was, I kept listening.

The company has created genetically modified males who are very sexy to the females but their offspring? Die.

How creepy.

When released in the Grand Caymans during trials, they wiped out 80% of the mosquito population.

Sounds great but what does that really mean for people and nature?

Well, male mosquitoes don’t bite so there is no potential for THE FLY. And mosquitoes carry diseases like malaria and dengue fever. In fact, there has been an outbreak of dengue fever in the Florida Keys the last two years, which is why Florida is considering these mutant mosquitoes.

Malaria is bad news (although not found in Florida):

The CDC estimates that there are 300-500 million cases of malaria each year, and more than 1 million people die. It presents a major disease hazard for travelers to warm climates. (source)

Dengue Fever is mostly annoying:

Begins with a sudden high fever… A flat, red rash may appear over most of the body 2 – 5 days after the fever starts. A second rash, which looks like the measles, appears later in the disease. Infected people may have increased skin sensitivity and are very uncomfortable. (source)

Dengue Hemorrhagic fever is its one potentially deadly complication. (which I couldn’t find any evidence of occurring in Florida):

Early symptoms of dengue hemorrhagic fever are similar to those of dengue fever, but after several days the patient becomes irritable, restless, and sweaty. These symptoms are followed by a shock -like state… With early and aggressive care, most patients recover from dengue hemorrhagic fever. However, half of untreated patients who go into shock do not survive. (source)

Even with this potentially deadly complication, which occurs 10% of the time, it only leads to death 1% of that 10%,. (The math: 1 of a 1000 people who contract dengue fever will die although I would imagine that the statistics are based on areas where dengue fever is more common rather than Florida with only 88 cases in the past 2 years.)  Only 0.1% of the Florida Keys population has contracted the disease, and only 20 cases are indigenous to Florida (contracted in Florida and not abroad and happen to show symptoms while in Florida).  Back in 2001, there were 40 cases in Hawaii of dengue fever.  Also, researchers don’t expect the cases to extend beyond 1 COUNTY in Florida. (source)

So I find it shocking that Florida authorities would be considering such an extreme measure for a two year dengue fever outbreak. I imagine that there are more pressing matters than wiping out the mosquito population over 20 cases of an annoying virus.

I also believe that any large alteration of nature (such as wiping out a species on purpose) should be considered carefully. Mosquitoes are part of our eco-system and while I hate mosquito bites, I also hate ants, most spiders, house flies and the neighbor who leaves dog poop bags next to my trash can. I plan to just walk through these issues. I’m very brave that way.

Mosquitoes are a favorite meal for bats. Bats don’t become vampires sadly, but they do spread plant seeds (through poop!), and in Virginia, they are eaten by owls, hawks, raccoons, skunks and other animals prey on bats.

I love science and its push to find new and better ways to help people. But I feel like this concept, particularly in Florida, speaks to our belief that we shouldn’t experience discomfort, and species, that aren’t cute, aren’t important.

I worry about are ability to understand the big picture and to appreciate the intricacies of nature. We don’t really understand the relationship between bats and plants but many scientists believe it is valuable. I don’t think that we understand the ramifications of species loss.

If they were considering this in a place where mosquitoes were transmitting diseases that killed or maimed a large amount of people? I might consider it. I don’t know how many people would be considered “enough” to destroy a species. I found no reported cases of death in Florida due to mosquitoes. But alligators killed 17 people between 2000-2007 in Florida.  How are the Florida authorities rationalizing this?

I would like to see Florida increase funding for local scientists to better understand what caused dengue fever, an annoying virus, to shift into dengue hemorrhagic fever or to support vaccine development.

Or if Oxitec would make genetically-altered mosquitoes who could do dishes and mow my lawn, I might change my mind.

Photo source

Alex Iwashyna

Alex Iwashyna went from a B.A. in philosophy to an M.D. to a SAHM, poet and writer by 30. She spends most of her writing time on LateEnough.com, a humor blog (except when it's serious) about her husband fighting zombies, awkward attempts at friendship, and dancing like everyone is watching. She also has a soft spot for culture, politics, and rude Southern people who offend her Yankee sensibilities. She parents 2 elementary-aged children, 1 foster baby, 3 cats, and 1 puppy, who are all Southern but not rude. Yet.

18 thoughts on “Genetically Modified Mosquitoes Are Creepy

  1. I am of the school of thought that just because we can make something, doesn’t mean we should. Just because we can do something, doesn’t mean we should. I worry that our advances in technology will ultimately lead to our demise. Plus I don’t think God likes when we mess with his original recipe…

  2. In an area where malaria is a prevalent problem, I can see considering something like this (not necessarily doing it – just considering it), but in the case of Florida, it seems insane.

    I wonder how many of those cases of dengue fever could have been prevented by using mosquito repellent?

  3. It seems unlikely they’ll use them widespread, but in urban areas of the tropics where the alternative is spraying chemicals (which they do)–using this as an option should be considered. The thing that you didn’t really mention is that the mosquitoes that were mentioned were said to be an invasive species of mosquito, which means they don’t naturally occur there. This means that the predator/prey relationship is out of whack because the insectivores that live there can’t keep up.

    Whether or not you like GMOs is really more to do with your educational background (i.e. understanding what modifying entails). We’ve been selectively breeding–or genetically modifying–organisms for centuries: corn, cattle, dogs, wheat, etc. etc. etc. This will probably come as a surprise to some people, but seedless watermelon aren’t naturally occurring. The difference is we can do it faster now.

    As for the mosquitoes, don’t forget that they also carry encephalitis like West Nile (and equine or bovine encephalitis, it’s not like the horses and cows can just spray themselves with some OFF!), which typically starts in the warmer climates and over the past few years has spread to almost all 50 states. In 2009 and 2010 in the US, 1,002 people got a neuroinvasive version of West Nile and 89 people died. This isn’t just about mosquitoes being a nuisance; people are regularly dieing in this country of mosquito-borne illness. That said, there are many places higher on the list of places in need of mosquito control–namely sub-Saharan Africa and in the developing nations between the Tropic of Capricorn and Cancer. Heck, we could be using DDT in those places, but because of erroneous information in the 70s everyone’s afraid of it.

    So you’re choices are: 1) douse in chemicals, 2) use GM bugs, 3) do nothing and ignore the problem.

    Seems to me most people living in their cushy 1st world homes and offices would like to do nothing. I’m personally okay with option 1 or 2, but in general, I’m not a fan of excess chemicals in the environment so I’d lean towards the GM males.

    1. This is a great response.

      1) I’m actually not against genetic-modification. I am against the idea of removing a species from the ecosystem on purpose. (I did find the whole sexy, dead off-spring thing creepy, but that’s just my sci-fi self.)

      2) I didn’t read in that article or my research that the mosquito species is invasive. There was a dengue fever outbreak in FL in 1935 so they’ve clearly been in the Keys for a long time.

      3) I didn’t go into the West Nile virus because my point was more general: that dengue fever didn’t seem to justify this response. I wouldn’t have take the same stand on malaria in a population where the morality and morbidity rates where higher and access to adequate healthcare was lower.

      4) I would like to know if those 89 people who died of West Nile could have been saved another way. Did they have co-morbids? Did they have access to healthcare? Did they contract it in the US? What happened and could we look there first?

      Thanks again for you very thought-provoking comment friend!

      1. Sorry, I wasn’t accusing you personally of being against GMOs. 😉 But many are and they’re more often than not underinformed. Although, I would imagine some people are completely informed and disagree with me on the subject–people are allowed to do that too. 😛

        Yes, they’ve had mosquitoes in the Keys for probably tens of thousands of years (or however long the Keys have been above sea-level). But it specifically said “invasive” in the first sentence of the description of the transcript. *shrug* I’m not an entomologist or an epidemiologist.

        I know nothing of the West Nile cases, but what the chart tells me.
        http://www.cdc.gov/ncidod/dvbid/westnile/index.htm It’s possible we could dig through MMWRs, but that’s really someone else’s job. 😉

        Between being from Florida (25 years), being particularly attractive to mosquitoes (that’s attractive, not attracted, and being a biology guy, I couldn’t hold back from commenting. 😛 Hope it really did add something to the discussion.

        1. Interesting. I didn’t see that it was an invasive species. I wonder if that went for Grand Cayman where they tested it as well? If that’s a ‘requirement’?

          And your comment added lots. Science and thoughtfulness rock!

  4. I’m guessing you don’t have west nile virus in Florida.It’s carried by mosquito and it’s a nasty thing if it progresses too far.
    That’s not to say that there isn’t a better way to deal with the mosquito population. Finding a cure or vaccine for these diseases would be a far better way to spend those research dollars. Even a better repellent would be a great start.

    1. I’m not personally in Florida, but the piece really struck me.

      Another commenter (http://www.lateenough.com/2011/07/genetically-modified-mosquitoes-are-creepy/#comment-18755) mentioned West Nile as well — I didn’t list it because I was using Malaria as an example of a more deadly disease than Dengue (and one that I might reconsider my response to the outbreak for.

      I don’t know where I’d put West Nile. It’s worse than Dengue but not as widespread as Malaria. Tough question.

  5. um, as much as mosquitos love me, and I hate them, I would like to say I usually hate humans more often and isn’t earth already overpopulated? more people should die more often, and not by violence, but by wraths of nature. that’s my $.02

  6. I swear your writing about news/politics/science is the only way I keep informed. I used to read up on this stuff all the time, but it went by the wayside after having Eddie and focusing on my own writing.

    Anyway, I am wary of any attempt to wipe out a species too. modify it or research a way to combat the effects, but to wipe it out? That seems too much like Hitler to me. You know…with animals.

  7. “our belief that we shouldn’t experience discomfort, and species, that aren’t cute, aren’t important.” That sums up the whole thing for me right there. Beautifully articulated, great point, wonderful post.

  8. I grew up in Florida and am moving back there soon. I have so much to look forward to. Namely, this and sarcasm.

  9. I totally agree. My favorite lesson when I taught earth science to my 5th graders was explaining the food web by each student holding a picture and card about an animal they were. Then they held on to a bit of string and passed the rest to an animal they ate, then that person/animal did the same and so on so they could see how they were all connected. Then I through out a situation – no mosquitoes/ a new development going up in the marsh, an animal becomes extinct – and they could see the affect of it on the food chain when that animal had to let go…and then that animal that ate it…and then that animal, and so forth. Pretty eye-opening. It totally changed my view about environmentalists, etc.

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