Mutant Mosquitoes: Genetically Modified Solution To Malaria To Be Feared?

Mutant mosquitoes are being posed as a solution to malaria, dengue favor, and other vector-borne pathogens which affect millions of people each year. A company called Oxitec has been producing genetically modified mutant mosquitoes in order to solve this problem.

Hadyn Parry, a biotechnology entrepreneur and CEO of Oxitec, advocates rethinking genetically modified (gm) technologies in order to re-engineer the design of the mosquito genome to create a new breed of mutant mosquitoes that will kill off the mosquito population. Trial runs with the mutant mosquitoes have resulted in a 85 percent decrease in the local mosquito population.

As previously reported by The Inquisitr, dengue fever concerns have prompted Florida officials to ask the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) to eliminate the threat through the use of genetically modified mosquitoes. A previous attempt in Key West had the residents afraid that mutant mosquito swarms could mutate further and throw off the fragile ecosystem there or even harm humans. But the mutant mosquitoes being released would be all males, which do not bite, and therefore can’t spread disease. Then again, the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park were all supposed to be female….

The Varsity explains how Oxitec’s mutant mosquitoes get the job done:

“Female mosquitoes are generally the spreaders of disease. Parry’s idea is to produce gm male mosquitoes that will be able to locate and mate with female mosquitoes in the environment. These male mosquitoes have a gene that will cause the female to produce dead offspring, thereby decreasing the population of the deadly species of mosquitoes spreading disease.”

According to the New York Times, there are other scientists using genetically modified mutant mosquitoes, but they are taking a slightly different approach. Fred Gould, an entomologist at N.C. State, is trying to design flightless female mosquitoes, since it’s only the females that bite and thus spread disease. Anthony A. James, a professor of microbiology at the University of California, is trying to transfer a gene in mice that gives resistance to malaria to the mosquitoes themselves. Theoretically these mutant mosquitoes would destroy the disease in their own bodies instead of spreading it to humans.

Many people are turned off by the idea of mutant mosquitoes just because they are genetically modified. Part of this resistance is due to widespread fears about genetically modified crops like corn. There is also the irrational fear that GM mutant mosquitoes can suddenly evolve into the X-Men version of mosquitoes. They are likened to the antibiotic resistant bacteria now seen in hospitals such as MRSA.

Fortunately, reality is not like the X-Men. Bacteria resistant to antibiotics have been found in frozen corpses of people who died long before any antibiotics were invented. The pre-existing antibiotic-modifying enzyme acetyltransferase has a flexible active site that can be modified to break down various antibiotics and render them useless. In addition, antibiotic resilient bacteria lose functional ability as a sacrifice for their resilience, including slower reproduction and metabolic rates (it can’t eat as fast or as many objects), making these bacteria less fit in the wild. I’ve seen this situation called the “survival of the weakest.” In fact, some doctors recommend that if a patient contracts an antibiotic resistant bacteria that a trip outside the hospital might actually kill off these so-called “superbugs” due to competing with the “normal” bacteria.

So the good news is that the fears that these mutant mosquitoes would suddenly evolve into super mosquitoes are unfounded. The world is not Jurassic Park. A deleterious change to the mosquito is not suddenly going to become the foundation for an upgrade. So, considering these facts, would you like to see these mutant mosquitoes released into your neighborhood?