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What’s Bugging the Florida Keys?

by Ben Garfinkel

In 2014, the viral diseases dengue and chikungunya rose to public awareness, since it was recorded in the US for the first time. Actress Lindsay Lohan contracted the chikungunya virus while traveling in French Polynesia. All 25 domestic cases of chikungunya reported in 2015 are like Lohan’s instance: in each case, the disease was contracted by an individual traveling in a tropical location.

mosquitos

Dengue and chikungunya are both mosquito-borne illnesses originating in Africa; both cause fever, joint pains, swelling, rash, headache, vomiting, and muscle pain; both have no known cure or vaccination. Between the two, an estimated 500,000 people worldwide have contracted one of the two diseases, the majority of these in South America, Southern Africa, and Southern Asia.

Anticipating the rise in cases in the US, British researchers working for the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District have sought approval from the Food and Drug Administration to implement a new way to fight the spread of these diseases: genetically modified mosquitos.

The project involves genetically modifying male mosquitos (only female mosquitos bite) to carry certain bits of genetic material (some include parts of cabbage, E. coli, and other genomes). The goal of this modification is to have males whose genetic material causes larvae to die. So basically, the modified male mosquito is released into the wild and is free to mate with wild females. The genetic modification causes the larvae to die before reaching maturation.

Several million of these mosquitos have already been released in Brazil, Malaysia, and the Cayman Islands, and the results are staggering. Local mosquito populations declined by around 90 percent.

Despite all the positive data, there is a large amount of public opposition. There is even a petition on the crowd-promoted-petition site Change.org titled “Say No to Genetically Modified Mosquitoes’ Release in the Florida Keys,” which has over 149,000 of its desired 150,000 signatures at the time of this writing. The petition opposes the idea of using the Florida Keys as a testing ground for this concept.

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