Mosquito control officials in the Florida Keys are waiting for the federal government to sign off on an experiment that would release hundreds of thousands of genetically modified mosquitoes to reduce the risk of dengue fever in the tourist town of Key West.
If approved by the Food and Drug Administration, it would be the first such experiment in the US Some Key West residents worry, though, that not enough research has been done to determine the risks that releasing genetically modified mosquitoes might pose to the Keys' fragile ecosystem.
Officials are targeting the Aedes aegypti mosquitoes because they can spread dengue fever, a disease health officials thought had been eradicated in the US until 93 cases originated in the Keys in 2009 and 2010.
The trial planned by mosquito control officials and the British company Oxitec would release non-biting male mosquitoes that have been genetically modified to pass along a birth defect that kill their progeny before reaching maturity.
The idea is that they will mate with wild females and their children will die before reproducing. After a few generations, Key West's Aedes aegypti population would die off, reducing the dengue fever risk without using pesticides and at relatively a low cost, the proponents say. There is no vaccine for dengue fever.
"The science of it, I think, looks fine. It's straight from setting up experiments and collecting data," said Michael Doyle, pointing to research Oxitec has had published in peer-reviewed scientific journals. He inherited the project when he took the lead at the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District in mid-2011.
The district's website says the modified genes will disappear from the environment after the mosquitoes carrying it die, resulting in no permanent change to the wild mosquito population. The district also says that the mosquito species isn't native to the Keys, nor is it an integral food source for other animals.
Dengue fever is a viral disease that inflicts severe flu-like symptoms — the joint pain is so severe its nickname is "breakbone fever." It isn't fatal but victims are then susceptible at subsequent exposures to dengue hemorrhagic fever, which can be.