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Are Genetically Modified Mosquitoes Scarier Than Dengue Fever?

A proposed mosquito-control tactic in Florida is riling up citizens who fear messing with Mother Nature.
mosquito silhouette

Scientists say genetically modified mosquitoes could be the answer to mosquito-borne diseases. (Photo: mycteria/Shutterstock)

If researchers get their way, millions of genetically modified mosquitoes may soon be released into the Florida Keys—and that's not supposed to be a horror-movie scenario.

The Associated Press reported this weekend that mosquitoes with synthetic DNA would help fight two "extremely painful" diseases, dengue fever and chikungunya, by killing mosquito larvae. The plan is still awaiting Food & Drug Administration approval. According to the report:

Dengue and chikungunya are growing threats in the U.S., but some people are more frightened at the thought of being bitten by a genetically modified organism. More than 130,000 people signed a petition against the experiment.

Genetically modified mosquitoes are not a novel venture; the growing human toll of mosquito-borne illnesses, combined with increased insecticide resistance, has led scientists to get creative with their solutions. An international group of researchers has used a similar genetics approach for malaria mosquitoes, while scientists from Pennsylvania State University have attempted to curb West Nile by infecting certain mosquitoes with bacteria. (The former has been more successful than the latter.)

How safe are these modified mosquitoes? A spokesman for the British biotech group that will supply the Florida Keys' mosquitoes has emphasized previous field tests that were successful, according to the AP report: "Oxitec has now released 70 million of its mosquitoes in several countries and received no reports of human impacts caused by bites or from the synthetic DNA, despite regulatory oversight that encourages people to report any problems."

Despite previously successful field tests in the Cayman Islands and Brazil, the idea of messing with Mother Nature does not sit well with many Florida citizens. In the aforementioned petition, the organizers raise serious questions about how the GM mosquitoes could affect the ecological balance of the Florida Keys. But the more visceral reactions tend to mirror the—mostly unfounded—fears of GMO foods that scientists have repeatedly repudiated.

Still, considering the low number of dengue fever cases in Florida, it may be difficult for Oxitec to prove that benefits outweigh risks. Florida Department of Health statistics show only 88 people have been infected with dengue fever in Key West since 2009—probably not enough to risk spreading "mutant" versions of an insect that is already hugely unpopular.