GMO Mosquitoes: The 21st Century Bug Zapper

There are several mosquito-borne diseases that merit a lot of attention in the US. These include dengue, chikungunya, and West Nile Fever. The key to the control of these infections--none of which  are vaccine-preventable--is controlling the mosquito which serves as the vector for human infection. 


Vector-control is a challenging task. Prior to the sermons of fellow Pittsburgher Rachel Carson, which led to bans on DDT use and the collapse of the malaria eradication efforts in the 1960s, mosquito control was achieved using this highly efficacious insecticide. Current vector-control activities employ other compounds targeting mosquito larvae as well as adults. Often, simple efforts such as removing standing water from tires and other household items are highly effective measures. 

A new 21st century approach to vector control that I find very promising is the use of genetically modified mosquitoes. In this approach, pioneered by Oxitec, male mosquitoes are genetically engineered to produce offspring that cannot live outside the laboratory because they require the presence of the antibiotic tetracycline to live. In the wild, when a female mosquito mates with one of these engineered male mosquitoes, the offspring produced will die. Such an activity can substantially reduce vector populations and, therefore, render infection with mosquito-borne viruses less likely. Thus far this approach has been used against Aedes mosquitoes (the vector for chikungunya, dengue, and yellow fever).

Already, this approach has been employed in Malaysia, Brazil, and Panama with great success. Even Florida, recently plagued with dengue, has used this approach.

What I can't seem to fathom is why this measure, which could literally change the landscape in the realm of vector control, is met with derision and fear over tampering with the "fragile ecosystem." Such a reaction completely drops the context. All types of vector control, from bug zappers to DDT to a fly swatter, represent attempts to "tamper" with the ecosystem and are laudable attempts to tame mosquito-borne diseases. Mosquito lives aren't as important as human lives, unless one holds a wickedly egalitarian and nihilistic standard. 

I wonder if these individuals would have counseled against smallpox eradication because of the ecological niche once played by the virus. 

A favorite quote of mine, from Francis Bacon, is applicable here: "Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed." Viewing nature as a realm able to be shaped and reconfigured by man's mind, while respecting the rules of reality, is what is sorely missing in the minds of those who reflexively oppose the use of these mosquitoes. It is reminiscent of Mary Shelley's panic over the progress of science, which inspired her Frankenstein.