After a decade of struggling for regulatory approval and public acceptance, a biotech company has released genetically modified mosquitoes into the open for the first time in the United States. The experiment, launched this week in the Florida Keys despite objections from some local critics, is testing a method of suppressing populations of wild Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, which can carry diseases such as Zika, dengue, chikungunya and yellow fever.
Oxitec, the Abingdon, UK-based company that developed the mosquitoes, has already field tested the insects in Brazil, Panama, the Cayman Islands and Malaysia.
But so far, due to a series of back door regulatory decisions and crackdown on Florida residents (see A Long Road), no genetically engineered mosquitoes have been tested in the United States, even though the country has allowed previously testing a genetically engineered diamond moth (Plutella xylostella) in New York City and a pink bollworm (Pectinophora gossypiella) in Arizona, both developed by Oxitec. When something new and groundbreaking happens, the immediate reaction of many people is to say: Wait, says Anthony James, a molecular biologist specializing in bio-engineered mosquitoes at the University of California, Irvine. So the fact that [Oxitec] was able to get the field trial in the United States, that’s a big deal.
Aedes aegypti makes up about 4% of the mosquito population in the Keys, a chain of tropical islands off the southern tip of Florida. But it is responsible for virtually all mosquito-borne diseases in the region, according to the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District (FKMCD), which is working closely with Oxitec on the project. Researchers and technicians working on the project will release bio-designed, non-biting male Aedes aegypti mosquitoes to mate with the wild female population, responsible for biting prey and transmitting disease. Genetically modified males carry a gene that passes to their offspring and kills female offspring in the early stages of larvae. Male descendants will not die, but instead become carriers of the gene and pass it on to future generations. As more females die, the population of Aedes aegypti is expected to decline.
In 2010, FKMCD approached Oxitec to test its approach in the Keys, as Florida was and still is experiencing an increase in mosquito-borne diseases. In 2009, the state began seeing cases of locally transmitted dengue and, a few years later, transmitted Zika locally.
At the end of April this year, project researchers placed boxes containing Oxitecs mosquito eggs in six locations in three areas of the Keys. The first males should emerge in the first two weeks of May. About 12,000 men will be rolling out of the boxes each week for the next 12 weeks. In a second phase later this year, intended to collect even more data, nearly 20 million mosquitoes will emerge over a period of about 16 weeks, according to Oxitec.
Genetically modified mosquitoes are an alternative to insecticides, which are widely used in the United States to control insect populations. This led to the evolution of insecticide resistant mosquitoes.
Unfortunately, we were seeing our toolbox shrinking due to resistance, Andrea Leal, executive director of FKMCD, said at a press conference last week. This is one of the reasons we were really looking for these new innovative tools and new ways to control this mosquito.
To monitor the progress of the trials, researchers will use capture devices to trap mosquitoes for study. They will measure how far male mosquitoes travel from the boxes, their lifespan, their effectiveness in smothering the wild female mosquito population and whether all female carriers of the gene are indeed dying. Oxitec mosquitoes carry a fluorescent marker gene that makes them glow when exposed to a specific color of light, making it easier to identify.
The biotech firm plans to present the results to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which has given the green light to the trial. The data will help the EPA determine whether Oxitec can release mosquitoes more widely in the United States. The company is still testing them in Brazil and other countries.
Opposition to the Florida field trial was fierce from some residents of the Keys. Worried about being bitten by mosquitoes or that the insects would disrupt Florida’s ecosystem and generally unhappy at being chosen as a test site, some threatened to derail the experiments by spraying insecticides near the release points. As you can imagine, emotions run high, and there are people who really feel strongly for or against it, says molecular biologist Natalie Kofler, who teaches at Harvard Medical School in Cambridge, Mass., And is the founder of Editing Nature, an organization. which advocates responsible development and monitoring of gene editing technologies. And I can see how, if you don’t accept that, it could be really worrying to have mosquitoes released in your neighborhood.
Many concerns arise from the uncertainty of a new technology, says Kofler, who has been following the project for years. Oxitec has engaged with the Florida Keys community to provide answers to questions. They explained, for example, the very low probability that female mosquitoes carrying the lethal gene could reproduce. But a lot of people don’t trust what they hear because it comes from a business, Kofler says.
Kofler hopes that enough data will be gathered to assess the impact of mosquitoes, including on other species in the Keys and local ecosystems, and that this is done in a transparent way, and in a way that can allow for some members of the community to feel better overall. situation.
Oxitec employees have taken precautions against vandalism by placing their mosquito boxes on fenced private property and not revealing their precise location to the public.
Along the road
Oxitec has faced regulatory assessments from three different US federal agencies and opposition from Florida residents over the past decade as it sought approval to release its mosquitoes in the United States for the first time.
March 2010: Oxitec submits a request to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to conduct a field trial with its genetically modified mosquitoes.
October 2011: USDA declares that it has no regulatory jurisdiction over Oxitecs mosquitoes.
November 2011: The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) claims jurisdiction over mosquito regulation, so Oxitec submits a request to the agency for a trial in Key Haven, Florida.
August 2016: The FDA approves the trial. Start date is dependent on Florida Keys Mosquito Control District (FKMCD) boards approval of mosquito release sites.
November 2016: Key Haven residents vote against the lawsuit in a referendum, but elsewhere in the country of Monroe, Florida, enough residents vote for it to keep the project afloat.
October 2017: The FDA transfers the jurisdiction of Oxitecs mosquitoes to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
March 2019: Oxitec switches to a second generation mosquito due to technological advancements and EPA requests for an permit to conduct field trials in Monroe County.
April 2020: The EPA gives the green light to the project.
August 2020: The FKMCD board votes to proceed with the trial.
April 2021: The trial begins as boxes of genetically modified mosquitoes are placed at Monroe Countys Cudjoe Key, Ramrod Key and Vaca Key.
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