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Florida Officials Will Release Genetically Modified Mosquitoes to Fight Zika

The Florida Keys are the latest front on the war against the virus

The offspring of mosquitoes like this one could soon be toast thanks to a new trial in Florida. (Oregon State University - Flickr/Creative Commons)
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As of last week, over 4,200 individuals are reported to have tested positive for the Zika virus within the United States—and officials worry that the virus, transmitted by the bite of the Aedes species of mosquito, will continue to spread. But not if the Florida Keys have anything to do with it. As NPR’s Greg Allen reports, officials there have approved a controversial trial that will use genetically modified mosquitoes to fight the virus.

The trial will be the culmination of a five year-long fight to get the GM mosquitoes into the wild, reports Allen. Officials gave the program the thumbs up after 57 percent of the residents of Monroe County in the Keys voted in favor of a ballot measure approving the trial. As Kelly Servick notes for Science, the residents of the proposed site of the trial actually voted down the measure. Nonetheless, the trial, which was approved by the FDA earlier this year, will now go forward, though in a still to-be-determined location.

Here’s how it works: Oxitec, Ltd., a British company, will modify the genes of male Aedes aegypti mosquitoes. When they reproduce with female mosquitoes, their offspring inherit a gene that produces a protein called tAV. The gene, which Oxitec calls “self-limiting,” hijacks the mosquitoes’ cells using tAV so that they can’t express other genes. As a result, the offspring will die before they become adults and produce other mosquitoes.

Since A. aegypti mosquitoes not only flourish in the tropical environment of the Florida Keys, but also transmit Zika, it’s hoped that the death of the bugs will help reduce the spread of the disease. But not everyone is excited about the trial. Opponents of the trial fought long and hard to make sure it doesn’t move forward, and as STAT’s Andrew Joseph notes, local residents have vowed to hire private pest control crews to kill the GM bugs.

The Florida Keys Mosquito Control District anticipates that it can reduce nearly all insecticides used in the area once the GM mosquitos are doing their thing. But that upside is unlikely to convince those who believe that modifying a creature’s genes could have unintended consequences. Despite those vocal concerns, authorities say that the trial presents no danger to humans.

Meanwhile, other efforts to fight Zika are underway. Florida has set aside millions to develop a Zika vaccine, and scientists continue to study the link between the disease and microcephaly in infants.

Though the World Health Organization has declared an end to the Zika emergency worldwide, Florida cases of the disease continue to rise. The battle against the virus is anything but over—if anything, it’s being fought on more fronts than ever before. The battlefield of the Florida Keys is likely to attract plenty of attention as the trial begins. And though a pile of dead baby mosquitoes may seem anti-climactic, it could mean that one day, the virus will go the way of the dodo.

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