Report on Genetically Modified Mosquito Town Hall

April 24, 2012
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Before entering the meeting room there was a table with a sign-in sheet and a researcher who was conducting a survey.  The survey asked questions regarding how much general information the participant had about GM mosquitoes, their opinion about when, if ever GM mosquitoes should be released and what effect on humans would GM mosquitoes have in comparison to insecticides.  Upon entering the room there was plenty of local media present (1) as well as a camera crew getting footage for a documentary film.

The meeting began with a brief presentation by Michael Doyle the Director of the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District, who discussed various methods they have used to control mosquitoes, from educating the public to emptying out containers with water in them, to the use of aerial dropping of larvicides and other methods that can be found on their website.

Next was a presentation by Haydn Parry the CEO of Oxitec, the company that has created the GM mosquito. I expected the Oxitec presentation to address the various concerns that have been mentioned in several articles and
peer reviewed journals, such as why Oxitec blacked out information in a study of their GM mosquito by an independent laboratory(2), or the reason for omissions in Oxitec’s risk analysis from a previous Cayman Islands GM mosquito release and other criticism made by researchers in the Department of Evolutionary Genetics at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology(3).  However, Oxitec seemed to ignore most of those concerns.  The Oxitec presentation failed to mention the use of a synthetic protein expressed by the GM mosquito, based on a fusion of sequences from E.coli and the Herpes Simplex virus for the tetracycline repressible transcriptional activator(tTA) and any risk that may pose to insectivores eating the mosquitoes or humans. (3)

They claimed in their presentation that there was no risk of being bitten by a GM mosquito because they didn’t release any female mosquitoes, although a New York Times article claimed as much as 0.5 percent of the GM mosquitoes released would likely be female(4).  A study at the National Institute of Virology in India suggests male Aedes Aegypti infected with the chikungunya virus can infect female Aedes Aegypti during mating(5). The release of thousands or millions of male mosquitoes(6) contributing to a potential increased risk of spreading the chikungunya virus was also avoided in the presentation.

Oxitec claimed that GM mosquitoes can only reach adulthood in the presence of a specific dose of tetracycline, even though according to entomologist Todd Shelly as much as 3.5% of the GM mosquito larvae would reach adulthood even without the presence of tetracycline(4).  Oxitec even went so far as to claim that if a bowl of water with that precise amount of tetracycline was placed outside and mosquito larvae did develop to adulthood, the GM mosquito would still be contained because they only travel a hundred yards or so in their lifetime.  However, that doesn’t take into account that Key West is a tourist area visited by an estimated 3 million people from various parts of the U.S. and other countries every year(7) and that GM mosquitoes can easily find their way into the cars, luggage, etc. of people within that 100 yards and within a few hours or days could make their way into other counties or even countries.

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