This month the first U.S. experiment to release genetically modified (GM) mosquitoes into the wild gets put to a vote in Key Haven, Fla., and the county of Monroe. If the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District then approves the trial, U.K. biotech firm Oxitec will release millions of mutant male mosquitoes that had required an antibiotic to stay alive until adulthood. These males will pass the dependency to their offspring, which will then die without access to the drug. The resulting population plummet could reduce the risk of mosquitoes spreading diseases such as dengue fever—Key Haven suffered an outbreak in 2009–2010—and the growing threat of the Zika virus.
Many in Key Haven have voiced concerns about the safety of hosting GM insects in their backyards, but outside experts say these mosquitoes would be innocuous. “There are no potential [health] risks to the Oxitec genetically modified mosquitoes approach,” says Thomas Miller, an emeritus professor of entomology at the University of California, Riverside. And although this would be a first for the U.S., previous Oxitec field trials in other countries have successfully reduced local mosquito populations by more than 90 percent without any indication of worrisome side effects. Indeed, dozens of experiments with altered mosquitoes have taken place over the past five years throughout the world in an effort to squash the spread of mosquito-associated diseases. Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.