Can Genetically Modified Mosquitoes Save The World From Zika?

A look at several mosquito-modification projects and the political and cultural pushback they're facing.


Every Wednesday and Friday, members of the Clovis Mosquito Abatement team pick up a box from the post office, shipped to them from a lab in Kentucky. Inside that box are 20 tubes, each containing 1,000 male mosquitoes infected with a bacterium called Wolbachia that will render the eggs of any female they mate with infertile.

Project manager Steve Mulligan says it took a little explaining to persuade residents of a neighborhood in Clovis, Calif., to allow them to dump 40,000 mosquitoes in their front yards every week.

"It is unusual," says Mulligan. "The idea of releasing mosquitoes to control mosquitoes, that is thinking a little outside of the box."

But in the age of Zika virus, which has spread from South America to parts of Florida and even to Central California, people are open to new ideas to eliminate a species of mosquito that is responsible for millions of human deaths around the world.

While the residents of Clovis have been open to the audacious experiment of releasing bacteria-laden insects into their neighborhoods, other proposals have stoked far more controversy. A company called Oxitec engineered a mosquito in a laboratory to produce similar infertility effects to the Wolbachia infection method. But because this approach involves genetic modification as opposed to bacterial infection, Florida Keys residents formed a resistance movement to the GM mosquito.

"We don't want to be guinea pigs," says one Florida Keys resident at a town hall meant to field concerns about the mosquito release.

But with so many lives on the line, scientists like Zachary Adelman at Texas A&M questions the morality of opposition to genetically modified mosquitoes and has harsh words for those invoking the precautionary principle to halt the release of genetically modified organisms into the environment.

"While you're waiting, and while you're being 'precautionary,' tens of thousands of people—children—are going to die of hemorraghic fever from things like Dengue, or thousands of children will be born with microcephaly because of Zika," says Adelman.

Adelman and his team have modified the genomes of mosquitoes with the cutting-edge gene-editing technology CRISPR. When the transgenic mosquitoes mate with non-modified mosquitoes, the off-spring will almost all be male.

"We can link it with the so-called 'gene drive' where the gene would be inherited beyond 50 percent, at these super rates, where almost all the progeny would carry this gene… And eventually, the mosquitoes would run into a problem. They would run out of females, and then there would be no more eggs, and then that would be that for them," says Adelman.

One common objections that Adelman encounters is that wiping out a species of mosquitoes could have unintended consequences on our ecosystem. But he points out the particular mosquito he's targeting, Aedes Aegypti, is only native to certain parts of Africa and has spread across the planet only with human colonization.

"There are no species that are dependent on it, that must eat it to survice," says Adelman.

The Clovis release program concluded in mid-October, and scientists are still collecting data on the population effects. The trial release in the Florida Keys was approved by public referendum, but the Keys Mosquito District now has to seek FDA approval. Adelman says his CRISPR-modified mosquitoes still need further study in the lab before they're ready to be released into the wild.

Watch the full video above.

Produced by Zach Weissmueller. Graphics by Joshua Swain. Camera by Alex Manning and Weissmueller. Music by Kai Engel and Jared C. Balogh.

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  1. “While you’re waiting, and while you’re being ‘precautionary,’ tens of thousands of people?children?are going to die of hemorraghic fever from things like Dengue, or thousands of children will be born with microcephaly because of Zika,” says Adelman.

    Gotta love it when both sides hate the children.

  2. Heeeey, you’re not Ronald Bailey! What have you done with him!

  3. I for one welcome our Mutant-Insect Overlords

    1. Do Frankenskeeters have neck bolts?

      1. Not to my knowledge. They are described as resembling “Knife-wielding Pterodactyls

        1. I’d prefer knife-wielding motherfucking bear-o-dactyls.

          1. That was great. I followed up to learn more, but only discovered what seems to be a cat-obsessed lesbian.

        2. By the way =

          compare that above “Science-news” clip with this Mr Show parody.

          I have never seen TV-news ‘science reporting’ the same since. they all follow the same formula.

  4. “We don’t want to be guinea pigs,” says one Florida Keys resident at a town hall meant to field concerns about the mosquito release.

    Your choice: lead the world in mosquito eradication technology, or be the first in the world to need the latest Zika treatments.

    Fucking Luddites.

    1. But, but GMOs, GMOs are scary, more scarier than small government!

    2. Corporate Crony: Seriously, you should just shut up and spend your tax-collected mosquito abatement money on our mosquitoes. For the children.

      Dumb Yokel: Long dead mystics have spoken to me and convinced me your product is terrible, why don’t you go sell them to some brown kids who are would willingly give up mysticism to not die of dengue?

      Corporate Crony: They don’t have any money.

      It really feels like getting in the middle of a BLM/KKK fist fight.

    3. Brazil’s first lady president was just impeached and deposed for signing a bill allowing rape victims to get a morning after pill and DNA forensics. This coup was putched by the Speaker of the House Eduardo Cunha, currently in jail and under indictment on numerous felony charges. The Pope of Rome and Protestant Televangelists running the government all agree that the more women that are forced to raise pinheads, the easier it will be to convert the resulting new generation to their various faith-based superstitions. None of this would be possible without the espionage phonetap blackmail, government subsidies and slush money provided by US Republicans.

  5. We already had a solution to mosquito born pathogens. I’m not optimistic about any of these solutions turning out any better.

      1. dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane

        DDT is classified as “moderately toxic” by the US National Toxicology Program (NTP)[73] and “moderately hazardous” by WHO, based on the rat oral LD50 of 113 mg/kg.[74] DDT has on rare occasions been administered orally as a treatment for barbiturate poisoning

        Literally safer than some medications.

    1. DDT can and does create resistant populations of mosquitoes. Maybe something similar could happen with the GM bugs, but it seems less likely.

      DDT should be used where it can save lives effectively, but it’s not some magic bullet that will necessarily always work when you need it. Even if other solutions don’t turn out a lot better, you still need other options for when the one you have stops working.

  6. “We don’t want to be guinea pigs,” says one Florida Keys resident at a town hall meant to field concerns about the mosquito release.”

    He’d rather be a guinea pig WRT the Zika virus.

  7. Aedes are not the only vector of Zika. Three independent teams of researchers from Brazil, China, and Canada have confirmed it. The WHO acknowledged this for a few weeks but recently removed it from their website.

    The most worrisome mosquito control method (in my mind) is Wolbachia-infected mosquitoes. There is no way to put the genie back in the bottle with this one. And Wolbachia in Culex has been found to actually ENHANCE West Nile virus and malaria (and probably does with Zika too).

    Dr. Anthony James, University of California-Irvine, said: “These genetic tools might not be the best strategies for ZIKV [Zika virus] given that at this point there seem to be multiple vectors not only at the species but also at the population level. The current genetic technologies would not be appropriately applied to such complex systems.”

    The safety of Wolbachia was only assessed on spiders, spider eggs, soil samples, plant leaves, plant roots, earthworms, and millipedes. No mention of the effects on the birds, bats, fish, humans, or our waterways. Only the EPA had to approve them (not the FDA).

    With over 30 citations:…..me_Sterile

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  10. Unusual? In the 1940s American biologists bred, irradiated and released billions of male flies. The X-ray-dosed insects crossed with females who produced sterile eggs. Cobalt gamma-ray sources made the irradiation even cheaper in the 1950s, before pseudoscience did away with DDT. Nowadays the better folks folks would rather force women to bear and raise pinheads than let biologists sterilize insects with (ghasp!) ray-dee-A-shun!

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  15. I know why gmo makers want people to be scared of Zika. I’m not sure why reason would want to push the gmo propaganda. Come on reason get this trash off your site. People believe this crap. Do authors just print whatever there told these days?

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