Franken-bugs may be our best weapon against Zika

On Nov 8, the residents of a suburb of Key West will vote on whether to allow scientists to release genetically-modified mosquitoes into their backyards. Inserted into the mosquito's genetic makeup would be an artificial stretch of DNA that renders them unable to reproduce. As the “transgenic” mosquitoes mate with wild ones, the plan goes, their offspring would die, bringing the local population of skeeters down significantly — by as much as 90 percent, according to Oxitec, the for-profit firm that wants to release the modified mosquitoes. That would potentially reduce the risk to local residents of catching mosquito-borne diseases such as dengue and Zika.

Are these benefits worth the risk of releasing engineered mosquitoes into the wild? Should scientists be tinkering with the genetic makeup of creatures in the natural world?  These questions are particularly apt because a new class of gene-editing tools has recently made it easier, cheaper and faster to make wholesale changes in the genomes of living things.  The controversy Oxitec’s mosquito project has caused in Florida is a microcosm of a broader debate over the new biotechnology.  While the development of recombinant DNA techniques in the 1970s elicited calls for a moratorium on research, scientists have been more reluctant to sound the alarm this time around. At a meeting in Washington, D.C. last December on the implications of the new techniques, scientists opted instead to temper public fears. Meanwhile, work on applying these tools in medicine, agriculture and other areas continues apace.

Among scientists, opposition to the release of transgenic mosquitoes centers on the law of unintended effects. We do not thoroughly understand how the genetic material that we insert into the genome of a mosquito might make its way to other living things. It might not move beyond the treated mosquitoes and their doomed offspring. But what if someone accidentally ingested a mosquito or larva with the artificial DNA inside—would it have some impact on human health? What ripple effects would a sudden collapse of a population of Aedes aegypti mosquitoes have on the local ecosystem?

A lack of answers to questions such as these has prompted some scientists to invoke the precautionary principle: when effects are unknown, it’s best to play it safe. This sounds reasonable, but it is something of a Catch-22. By the precautionary principle, genetically modified crops would never have made it out of the lab, and yet the worst fears about their impact on human health have not been borne out. We know this because lots of people have been eating them for years.

Some residents of Key West are unnerved at the prospect of scientists tinkering with the makeup of wild creatures on their island. Signs have sprung up on lawns--“No Consent to Release of Genetically Modified Mosquitoes”--and the trial has been labeled “Jurassic science” on their island, according to the New York Times.

Their reaction echoes a broader distrust of scientists, especially those working at for-profit companies. This is understandable, considering the poor track-record of oversight in the United States of some fast-moving technologies. Fracking is a case in point. Fracking technology is hugely beneficial, but the industry has acted too often with a disregard for the welfare of residents, and government regulation is often absent or ineffectual.  Genetic modification, like fracking, is a tool that could be used well or poorly.

Much of the opposition to Oxitec’s mosquitoes seems to stem from abhorrence of the idea of genetic modification rather than the merit of these particular plans. When it comes to genetic modification, that’s pretty much par for the course. For instance, some genetically modified crops require fewer pesticides, others encourage greater use of pesticides--but often the two get lumped together. This kind of lazy (or opportunistic) thinking does not help to clarify the real issues at stake.

Either way, the vote in November won’t have a big impact on the spread of dengue and Zika in the short term on Key West or other areas in Florida, where the virus is panicking residents across the state. Large-scale measures would still take years to develop. That would be too late to counter the current Zika crises. The bigger issue is whether industry and government can engage the public to come up with a solution that is based on sound arguments and a weighing of true risks and benefits, and not just fear of Franken-bugs.

Fred Guterl is the executive editor of Scientific American and the author of The Fate of the Species.

The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.

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