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See Inside November 2011

The Wipeout Gene

A new breed of genetically modified mosquitoes carries a gene that cripples its own offspring. They could crush native mosquito populations and block the spread of disease. And they are already in the air—though that's been a secret



Photograph by David Liittschwager

Outside Tapachula, Chiapas, Mexico—10 miles from Guatemala. To reach the cages, we follow the main highway out of town, driving past soy, cocoa, banana and lustrous dark-green mango plantations thriving in the rich volcanic soil. Past the tiny village of Rio Florido the road degenerates into an undulating dirt tract. We bump along on waves of baked mud until we reach a security checkpoint, guard at the ready. A sign posted on the barbed wire–enclosed compound pictures a mosquito flanked by a man and woman: Estos mosquitos genéticamente modificados requieren un manejo especial, it reads. We play by the rules.

Inside, cashew trees frame a cluster of gauzy mesh cages perched on a platform. The cages hold thousands of Aedes aegypti mosquitoes—the local species, smaller and quieter than the typical buzzing specimens found in the U.S. At 7 a.m., the scene looks ethereal: rays of sunlight filter through layers of mesh creating a glowing, yellow hue. Inside the cages, however, genetically modified mosquitoes are waging a death match against the locals, an attempted genocide-by-mating that has the potential to wipe out dengue fever, one of the world’s most troublesome, aggressive diseases.

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