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750 million genetically modified mosquitoes will be unleashed in Florida

Published Aug 21st, 2020 3:10PM EDT
florida mosquitoes
Image: mycteria/Adobe

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  • A whopping 750 million genetically modified mosquitoes will be set free along the Florida Keys starting in 2021.
  • The insects are designed to hinder the reproduction of female mosquitoes that bite and spread disease.
  • The company behind the bugs, Oxitec, also has plans to release modified mosquitoes in Texas beginning next year. 

It might sound like the plot of a made-for-TV horror movie, but Florida is about to unleash a horde of genetically-modified mosquitoes onto its citizens. Some 750 million — yes, million — mosquitoes will be set loose along the Florida Keys island chain in an attempt to fight disease.

You’re probably asking yourself how unleashing mosquitoes — which are well-known disease carriers — could possibly fight disease, but the idea behind the project is actually pretty interesting. The diseases the government is attempting to target with the project are Zika, yellow fever, and dengue, all of which are commonly carried by the flying insects. The genetically modified mosquitoes that will be seeded into the population are designed specifically to kill off their peers that may be carrying these diseases.

As the BBC reports, the hundreds of millions of new mosquitoes being unleashed are all male. Male mosquitoes don’t bite humans, but rather feed on nectar from flowering plants. Female mosquitoes suck blood to produce eggs and offspring, but they have to mate with a male first. The genetically-modified males carry a very specific protein that is designed to ensure that no female offspring live long enough to reproduce themselves.

Male offspring are unaffected and will continue to carry on the genetic tweak for future generations. Each time they mate with a female mosquito, it ensures that the biting females never mature, thereby dramatically reducing the number of biting mosquitoes and, hopefully, curbing the spread of the diseases they carry.

It sounds like a great plan, but not everyone is on board. Many critics of the project liken the genetically-modified mosquitoes to a science-fiction nightmare, claiming that it’s an experiment that could have severe unintended consequences. A petition on to prevent the plan from moving forward has already gained nearly a quarter-million signatures.

As of right now, the project will move forward and has already gained all the necessary clearance from the government. The mosquitoes will be set free over a two-year stretch beginning in 2021, but the plan may not stop there.

The company behind the modified bugs, Oxitec, says it has tentative plans to roll out similar projects in Texas next year as well. However, at this time the company has federal clearance but lacks agreements with state and local officials. The company is adamant that its bugs won’t cause harm to the environment or people and claims that it has already done plenty of trials in places like Brazil and released over a billion mosquitoes to date.

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