04 Jun 2015: Report

Genetically Modified Mosquito
Sparks a Controversy in Florida

Officials in the Florida Keys are seeking to use a GM mosquito that could help prevent a recurrence of dengue fever there. But fears among some residents — which scientists say are unfounded — are slowing the release of mosquitoes whose offspring are genetically programmed to die.

by lisa palmer

When people think of genetically modified organisms, food crops like GM corn and soybeans usually come to mind. But engineering more complex living things is now possible, and the controversy surrounding genetic modification has now spread to the lowly mosquito, which is being
aedes aegypti
Marcos Teixeira de Freitas/Flickr
An Aedes aegypti mosquito, the species that primarily transmits dengue fever.
genetically engineered to control mosquito-borne illnesses.

A U.K.-based company, Oxitec, has altered two genes in the Aedes aegypti mosquito so that when modified males breed with wild females, the offspring inherit a lethal gene and die in the larval stage. The state agency that controls mosquitos in the Florida Keys is awaiting approval from the federal government of a trial release of Oxitec’s genetically modified mosquitos to prevent a recurrence of a dengue fever outbreak. But some people in the Keys and elsewhere are up in arms, with more than 155,000 signing a petition opposing the trial of genetically engineered mosquitoes in a small area of 400 households next to Key West.

Many scientists say, however, that genetically modifying the Aedes mosquito — and possibly other types of mosquitoes carrying diseases such as malaria — is a more effective and environmentally benign way of controlling mosquito-borne illnesses than spraying pesticides and other measures. Oxitec’s genetically engineered Aedes aegypti has proven itself in other countries, successfully reducing populations of the insect by up to 90 percent in field trials in the Cayman Islands, Brazil, Malaysia, and
A genetically engineered mosquito has proven itself in other countries, successfully reducing populations of the insect.
Panama. Overall, the trials were so successful that Brazil approved the use of the GM mosquitoes last year.

“Some people don’t want to see GE (genetically engineered) anything,” says entomologist Raymond St. Leger, distinguished university professor at the University of Maryland. “It’s an emotional response. It’s hard to reason people out of a decision they didn’t reason themselves into.”

St. Leger is now conducting field trials in Burkina Faso to test a method in which a mosquito is exposed to a fungus that prevents it from transmitting malaria. He says that Oxitec’s technology to suppress the Aedes aegypti has relatively little environmental risk and that knocking back the mosquito in the Keys, which experienced a dengue outbreak five years ago, “is a matter of urgency.

“You don’t want to wait until it’s endemic,” he says. “The gun is there and cocked and waiting to spread through their mosquitos. The extensive program and spraying with insecticides isn’t working. You need to do something now and not wait until dengue is there. It’s a very dangerous mosquito doing pretty well for itself in Florida.”

Tom Miller, a retired professor of entomology at the University of California, Riverside, says that the genetically modified mosquitoes Oxitec uses to control dengue should not be regulated at all. “The method only releases males that do not [bite and] take blood meals,” says Miller. “They seek out wild females of the same species and produce offspring with lethal genes, leaving no survivors. In terms of side effects, it is equivalent to dumping dead insects onto the sidewalk.”

The Florida Keys Mosquito Control District first consulted with Oxitec when 28 people in Key West were infected with dengue in 2009 and 2010 — the first outbreak of the disease in Florida in 75 years. Dengue is also known as “breakbone fever” because it causes debilitating bone pain and flu-like symptoms. A severe form of the illness, dengue hemorrhagic fever, can lead to death, although rarely in areas with good medical care.

No dengue cases have been reported in the Keys since 2010. Since the outbreak, local officials have fought the Aedes aegypti — the primary vector for dengue — using every means possible. They spend $1 million of their $10 million annual budget specifically trying to control this one species. It is one of 46 species of mosquitos that live in the Florida Keys, and accounts for 1 percent of the total mosquito population there.

While other mosquitos are nuisances, the problem of the Aedes aegypti is not the itch. The bug contracts diseases like dengue, chikungunya, and yellow fever from humans and then transmits it to people through bites. Only female mosquitos bite, and while other mosquitoes can take their blood meals from animals like dogs and birds, this species relies on humans to survive. It can fly just 100 to 200 yards, so it lays eggs in water that collects near homes, such as in garbage cans, barrels, or in plants. It’s an invasive species in Florida and likely came to the U.S. from Africa on European ships carrying early explorers. The Aedes aegypti was once eliminated through the use of chemicals like DDT, but the species has re-emerged in Florida over time.

“From a health standpoint, we don’t want to wait until we are fighting the disease,” says spokesperson Beth Ranson, of the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District. “We want to prevent it.”

Technicians now go door-to-door looking for standing water and remove it. They also use bacteria like Bacillus thuringiensis israelensis to kill larvae, spray chemicals into the air to kill adult bugs, and add larvae-hungry fish
Opponents of the GM mosquito 'have no argument that makes any sense,’ says one scientist.
to eat mosquitoes in abandoned cisterns or fountains. Despite all this effort, they have only reduced the insects by 50 percent over the past several years.

“We can’t go everywhere,” says Ranson. “We can’t get onto rooftops. We don’t have access to some properties. But we hope the Oxitec mosquitoes could get to those hard-to-find females and do the work for us.”

Key West resident Mila de Mier started the petition against Oxitec. She lives two miles from the proposed test site and has been outraged by the possibility of trials. She says the local mosquito control has been more than effective. “We have no local dengue now,” she says. “Why do a clinical trial in an area with no dengue? If it doesn’t work, how do you recall it? I don’t want my kids to be laboratory rats.”

Mier says she wonders what might happen to her three kids and two dogs if a lab-grown mosquito bit them — a concern that scientists say is unfounded. She is also worried that other mosquitoes, such as the Asian Tiger mosquito, would move in and fill the void in the ecosystem. Other opponents worry that the modified insect might have some unknown harmful effects on the environment.

But Oxitec and numerous scientists say fears about genetically modifying the Aedes aegypti mosquito are largely unfounded. Since only male GM mosquitoes would be released and only female mosquitos bite, it is virtually impossible that humans would be bitten by a modified female. Even if they were, the health impacts would be no different than being bitten by a non-modified mosquito, scientists say. And the self-limiting gene in the lab-grown mosquito is only passed on to another organism through sexual reproduction; a bird, for instance, cannot acquire the gene by eating the bug.

“The anti-GM mosquito, sterile-insect people have become a lunatic fringe,” says Miller of UC Riverside. “They have no argument that makes any sense.”

The fears expressed by opponents of the GM mosquito initiative in Florida are set against a backdrop of increasing experimentation with genetically modified organisms, says Todd Kuiken, a science and technology expert at the Science, Innovation and Technology Program at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. Today 115 different synthetic biology products and applications exist, and they are rapidly advancing.

Some — like a genetically modified, fast-growing salmon — have been languishing in federal regulatory offices for 16 years. Roughly 50 other modified organisms are on the market or close to commercial use. This list includes things like a genetically engineered variety of mustard that is injected with DNA from fireflies; the mustard can then be grown to produce “natural” lighting.

“As more products and platforms move onto the market, there will be increased demand for risk research to underpin regulatory decisions,” says Kuiken. “And as more novel species are developed, eco-evolutionary
An expert says the main objection to the technology boils down to its newness, rather than scientific merit.
dynamics will need to be evaluated, too.”

Miller says that the main objection to Oxitec’s technology boils down to its newness, rather than scientific merit. He says that the U.S government has approved similar applications for agriculture, noting that the sterile insect technique that Oxitec adapted to dengue control using modern molecular methods was invented by the U.S. Department of Agriculture more than 70 years ago. It has been used successfully to eradicate screwworm flies from North America and most of Central America and now is used to control a large number of crop insects globally, such as the destructive Med fly.

Miller says that using insecticides is only 2 to 5 percent efficient and has far more serious environmental consequences than genetically modifying mosquitoes.

“Insecticides coat the countryside and always leave a subpopulation of mosquitoes to survive, “ says Miller. He says, research suggests that eliminating mosquitos from urban areas has no negative environmental effects.

“We are introducing a new tool to reduce mosquito populations to trace levels that you can do in conjunction with other prevention and control methods,” says Hadyn Parry, chief executive officer of Oxitec. “With insecticide, you are spraying away and you may have insecticide resistance because populations are not going down. You are killing a number of insect species in a targeted area. There’s collateral damage — while reducing the aegypti species, you are also reducing innocent bystanders and beneficial insects. ... Ours is controlled and precise. It doesn’t hang around in the environment.”

Two genetic engineering technologies are currently being used to modify mosquitoes, and both are in the trial stage. One is a self-limiting technology, which Oxitec uses, where the modified mosquitoes contain a lethal gene that is passed on to offspring to prevent the larvae from developing into adults. The other is the gene-drive technology, a much more complex modification in which offspring inherit genes that are then passed on to entire populations. This can essentially immunize the pests from getting disease in the first place. The modified mosquito’s lifecycle is


Frankenfish or Healthy Food?
A Lively Debate on GM Salmon

GM salmon comparison
In an online debate for Yale Environment 360, Elliot Entis, whose company has created a genetically modified salmon, discusses the environmental and health impacts of this controversial technology with author Paul Greenberg, a critic of GM fish.
about a month, and the company has raised more than 150 generations with no mutations to the mosquitoes.

While the Keys do not currently have locally transmitted dengue or chikungunya, pre-conditions exist for these diseases to become endemic, public health experts say. The mosquito contracts the disease virus from humans, and with travel increasing from the Caribbean — especially Cuba — into Florida, scientists are concerned. Both diseases are severely debilitating. Chikungunya is similar to dengue but causes such severe joint pain that patients are often bent over from it. Chikungunya was not found in the Americas until December 2013; within 12 months, one million cases of chikungunya had spread throughout the Caribbean.

The Wilson Center’s Kuiken, who studies the governance strategies of synthetic biology, says the environmental risks of genetically modifying mosquitoes — which could include the impact of eliminating a mosquito species from an ecosystem — have not been well studied. The regulatory process, he says, for GM products lags far behind technological advancement. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Veterinary Medicine has been reviewing the issue of Oxitec’s GM Aedes aegypti mosquito since 2011. But this is the first time they have reviewed GM pest control, and Kuiken says it’s a decision with far-reaching implications.

“Man has been engineering nature and ecosystems ever since we came out of a cave,” says Kuiken. “What is different now is that we are beginning to engineer species. It is a progression on the scale, and it is a big progression.”

POSTED ON 04 Jun 2015 IN Biodiversity Biodiversity Business & Innovation Forests Pollution & Health Pollution & Health Science & Technology North America North America 


You have done a very poor job of presenting the
very serious and scientifically based objections to
GM mosquitoes. Portraying those of us who have
very serious environmental concerns as "the
lunatic fringe" does a real disservice to residents
of the Keys who are NOT worried about being
bitten but ARE worried about the effect of an
introduced species on our very fragile ecosystem.
By just interviewing Mila de Mier and no one else
you stacked the deck in favor of Oxitec and
genetic modification in general.

I have always respected your publication but this
article makes me revise my estimation. Very, very
poor job.
Posted by Michael Welber on 04 Jun 2015

Has Ms. Palmer even been to the Florida Keys? We have a very fragile environment with various endangered species. What guarantee has any scientist been able to present that no harm will come to any species including humans, after a release? Have there been any pre and post release protocols in effect? Fact check the release of GM mosquitos in other countries. Mosquito populations might have declined ,but dengue fever did not.
Posted by Deb on 04 Jun 2015

Unfortunately, your publication is having an
emotional response and is failing to look at the

For example you repeat, several times,
statements like, "But Oxitec and numerous
scientists say fears about genetically modifying
the Aedes aegypti mosquito are largely
unfounded. Since only male GM mosquitoes
would be released and only female mosquitos
bite, it is virtually impossible that humans would
be bitten by a modified female."

This claim is entirely fabricated. For example,
during a townhall meeting in Key West, Oxitec
claimed, "we can do this male only release so we
can release the insect is safe if you like, and not
release both male and female together"

However, this fabricated claim was later exposed
during the same meeting and Oxitec was forced
to admit about 1 in 1500 mosquitoes released
will be female.

Anyone who isn't "the lunatic fringe" can do the
basic math here and see that millions of
mosquitoes are being planned for release which
means thousands of females will be released. Of
course, that means it is virtually impossible that
humans would NOT be bitten by a modified
female, if they are released.

Another emotional response by this publication,
which has no science to support it, is that "Florida
Keys are seeking to use a GM mosquito that
could help prevent a recurrence of dengue fever

Oxitec was also forced to admit, at another
townhall meeting in Key West, that their trials
have all been too small to have any impact on
any mosquito borne diseases. They also
admitted that their trial planned for the Keys
would also be too small to have any impact on
mosquito borne diseases. So, even Oxitec
admits these trials will not "help prevent a
recurrence of dengue fever there."

Even if Oxitec did conduct such a large trial
which they think, but have no evidence, might
reduce mosquito borne diseases there would be
no scientific basis to support such a claim since
there is currently no dengue, chikungunya, etc.
in the Keys. Plenty of scientists also doubt it
would reduce mosquito borne diseases even if
dengue, etc. was present.

So, this would be an experiment where there is
no potential benefit for humans(cases of dengue
are already 0 and that cannot be lowered and
the trials planned are too small to even try to
reduce dengue) and all risk(people will be bit by
the mosquitoes, insectivores in the Keys will eat
them and there are no peer reviewed
independent studies that actually look at what
happens when you feed the Keys insectivores GE
mosquitoes, with the synthetic herpes/E.coli
based gene, etc., for a duration of 2 years, which
some estimate these releases will last).

The safety of Keys residents and Keys wildlife
should not be based on emotional responses
caused by Oxitec misinformation and
propaganda, it should be based on science! Until
these studies are done then anyone in favor of
releasing them, without this evidence, is being
unethical and anti-science.
Posted by Andrew Kramer on 04 Jun 2015

Reduce pesticide use, protect humans from disease, and it only affects an invasive species. It's a trifecta of good ideas.

Rachel Carson was a fan of modified mosquito strategies instead of chemical pesticides. She had it right in Silent Spring. I wish people who think they are environmentalists would think this through, instead of reacting to bad science claims.
Posted by Mary M on 04 Jun 2015

lisa palmer I'm sorry to say you sound like an oxitec shill. how does the below article square with your "investigative reporting"? tia

Posted by john murphy on 04 Jun 2015

This FAO summary of screwworm control in the U.S.
and Latin America might be relevant. Sterile males
were produced through irradiation versus genetic

Posted by Andrew Sipocz on 04 Jun 2015

Here's a philosophical question: Is it OK for one species(us) to eliminate another for our convenience? Our rampant population growth would militate against such a course of action, even if it is mosquitoes.
Posted by Evan on 04 Jun 2015

If the author had interviewed some members of the
“lunatic fringe,” including an entomologist from the
University of Florida who has concerns about the
impact of the GM mosquitoes on the ecosystem or
representatives from Food and Water Watch,
Friends of the Earth, or the Center for Food Safety
who are engaged in the effort to stop the release of
GM mosquitoes on an unwilling population, the
article might have had some necessary balance
instead of reading like an Oxitec-generated press
Posted by Beverly Welber on 04 Jun 2015

Dear Mary M,

Rachel Carson did indeed comment on the use of
sterilization (then radiation) to control insects.
(See Silent Spring, p. 283) She did not think it
would work to sterilize flies or mosquitoes
because the populations were too large. I
believe that if she were alive today, she would
have insisted on a full environmental impact
study, before any release. The FDA should
require large enclosures (mesocosms) to test
these mosquitoes. Physical enclosure to test GE
organisms, is one of the basic principles of
biosafety. It is not a "trial" if you just release
them. It is approval for their release. I also
believe that if Carson were alive today, she
would want to see a trial of Wolbachia bacteria
infection of the mosquitoes as it could overcome
the limitations of sterilization. I am waiting for
the results of the Australian Wolbachia trials to
see how well that biological control method will
work. Until we see how those trials come out,
the FDA would be jumping the gun to allow GE
mosquito "trials' in the Keys.
Posted by Jaydee Hanson on 04 Jun 2015

Some counterpoints to the argument are valid, such
as removing a species from the ecosystem has
unknown consequences, but this mosquito is an
invasive species and the argument does not stand
up. For those opposed to the trial, what are your
specific concerns? Do you have any concrete,
documented environmental concerns?
Posted by lisa palmer on 04 Jun 2015

If you provide your email to me we will send you a
great deal of relevant information. You can write to
me at the email address michael.welber@gmail.com
and I will forward relevant information.

In addition, you should have known that Food and
Water Watch, Friends of the Earth, and the Center for
Food Safety have been directly involved in our fight
to keep GM mosquitoes out of the Keys.

Posted by Michael Welber on 04 Jun 2015

No, Jaydee, Carson was very hopeful that modified mosquitoes would replace chemical pesticides. And she actually disliked the "bureaucratic inertia" in fact: http://bit.ly/KH0Mv2

And also no--you don't get to determine what is a trial and what is not. But I know that doesn't really matter to you. Activists stopped the enclosure trial in Spain, right? You would merely find a way to complain about any version of a "trial". I have to admit activists are really clever at finding ways to be barriers to reducing pesticides in ways that surprise me.

Lisa Palmer: the biggest problem for activists would be if this worked. Same as golden rice. They have to work hard to keep it from reaching the people it could help, because once it's shown to be effective and people decide they prefer the biological mechanism to the chemical mechanism all their arguments fall apart.
Posted by Mary M on 05 Jun 2015

"No dengue cases have been reported in the Keys
since 2010. Since the outbreak, local officials have
fought the Aedes aegypti — the primary vector for
dengue — using every means possible. They spend
$1 million of their $10 million annual budget
specifically trying to control this one species. It is
one of 46 species of mosquitos that live in the Florida
Keys, and accounts for 1 percent of the total
mosquito population there. “

What more needs to be said. Dengue is not a
problem in the Keys. Maybe the author would like
Oxitec to experiment in her neighborhood ?

Did you really think this through Lisa Palmer, or were
you charmed by the Brits and their need to make
money on their “research”? We are not research
monkeys, we are people with voices and we say no
to GM mosquitoes.

Posted by Bridget McDonald on 05 Jun 2015

Lisa, there are a wide variety of concerns as I've
mentioned in my previous comment. This
mosquito has a gene based on a fusion of
sequences from herpes and E.coli which codes
for a protein which the humans and insectivores
in the Keys have never been exposed to before.
The ethical and responsible thing to do would be
to conduct feeding trials of Keys insectivores to
determine whether there are signs of toxicity
and/or HGT to their intestinal microflora. It is
actually quite absurd for a claim of, "a bird, for
instance, cannot acquire the gene by eating the
bug"(mosquitoes aren't even bugs) when gene
transfer, of fragmented transgenes, to intestinal
microflora has already been documented in
humans who have consumed GE soy. See :
Netherwood T., Martín-Orúe S.M., O’Donnell A.G.,
Gockling S., Graham J., Mathers J.C., Gilbert H.J.
(2004) Assessing the survival of transgenic plant
DNA in the human gastro- intestinal tract. Nature
Biotechnology 22, 204-209

The other problem is the level of misinformation
promoted by Oxitec and articles such as this. I
covered some of this in my previous comment,
but the list of misinformation is quite long and
Oxitec has lost the trust of Keys residents by
misinforming the public.

For example, this article claims, “They seek out
wild females of the same species and produce
offspring with lethal genes, leaving no survivors."
This claim is almost identical to misinformation
stated by Oxitec at a townhall meeting in the
Keys. However, it turned out that claim was fabricated
and Oxitec was forced to admit later in that
meeting, after an outraged Keys resident
exposed their misinformation, that "indeed 3-4\%
of the the offspring that inherit one copy of this
gene survive to adult". This is still an
underestimation since their own studies suggest
that it is actually 3-5\% and as high as 18\% when
the larvae are exposed to cat food. During the
same meeting the Florida Keys Mosquito Control
admitted that mosquito larvae are indeed found
in pet dishes. So a claim of "leaving no
survivors" is just more misinformation.

When you have a company that refuses to do the
science required to suggest safety as well as
spreads misinformation about their product then
what rational person would want to be a part of
such an unethical, potentially risky experiment
conducted by an untrustworthy company?
Posted by Andrew Kramer on 05 Jun 2015

I have a Ph.D. in entomology (from UF), understand the technology, and don't consider myself to be one of the "lunatic fringe." I'm tired of the arrogance of these guys however. They have tested their technology all over the world and presented their own results as evidence for its efficacy. However even they don't claim to have reduced dengue anywhere at all. They ride roughshod over local objections and with huge amounts of money behind them, and clearly plan to steamroller this into control programs anywhere they can. They have no idea of the consequences and this would represent nothing more than a massive field experiment in the Florida Keys. I hope local resistance continues to keep them from doing this.
Posted by Bruce Alexander on 07 Jun 2015

Will these GM mosquitoes harm dragonflies and birds which
feast on them?
Posted by Iceni Summersides on 05 Aug 2016

Concerns regarding the 'fragile ecosystem'
notwithstanding, the bigger concern should
always be the prevention of mosquito born
disease. In particular, mosquito born dz which
will have permanent, untreatable effects on
human beings. I urge all persons who abhor the
Oxitec answer to visit pediatric LTC facilities and
to visit microcephalic babies and talk with the
parents. If you are unmoved by that sight,
perhaps you are NOT a fan of science, after all.
Posted by Elizabeth Omps, FNP-MSN on 05 Aug 2016

My fact is only intended to shed light around the issue and never to take focus on CMS, Legislators, or hospitals. The comments are just made to say we must look at this holistically and locate the most effective the and effective way to deal with patients who require specialty medications for chronic diseases.
health insurance defination http://topichealthinsurance.blogspot.com/2016/08/lessons-from-french-on-health-insurance.html
Posted by health insurance defination on 15 Aug 2016

monsanto and all the like, get into a pen with all
your gmo creations and live there. Let us
experiment on you!
Posted by on 30 Aug 2016

Here's some arguments that makes sense: What
happens if these creatures evolve/mutate to live
without the aid of antibiotics? What happens when
they spread worldwide? What happens when the
evolved female offspring live long enough to bite a
human? What happens if this mechanical separation
of male/female is not fool proof and you accidentally
let females out? Can you prove that it will not
eventually enter the human genome and cause the
extinction of humankind? I'm not anti GMO - but I
think most are ignoring a possibility that this is the
Pandora's box that could lead to the extinction of
other species, especially ours.
Posted by Steven Hammock on 19 Sep 2016


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Lisa Palmer is a freelance journalist and a fellow at the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center in Annapolis, Md. She reports on energy, climate change, the environment, and sustainable business for publications such as Slate, Scientific American, and The Guardian. Previously for e360, Palmer reported on how "climate-smart" agriculture may help farmers deal with climate change and how weeds could bolster global food supplies in the face of climate change.



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