Mosquitoes might just be the deadliest creature on our planet. The average mosquito tends to be an annoyance. It whines in your ear. It bites you and the spot can itch for days. What makes it deadly is the fact that the genetics of the mosquito make it become a vehicle for a host of deadly diseases.
Malaria tends to be the disease that receives the most attention as a mosquito-borne disease, but numerous viruses can be transmitted by this creature. The Zika virus, West Nile virus, dengue fever, and the Chikungunya virus are all transmitted through mosquito contact.
The primary benefit of genetically modified mosquitoes is that the modifications would change how this creature interacts with the world. Altering the genetics of the mosquito could prevent them from spreading disease, especially when the mosquito is the type that prefers human blood almost exclusively. We could still benefit from the presence of the mosquito, but without the same disease transmission worries.
The key disadvantage to genetically modified mosquitoes is that there could be chain consequences that are unpredictable. Numerous species eat mosquitoes as part of their regular diet, including birds and bats. Mosquito larvae are consumed by frogs, fish, and other forms of marine life. Changing the genetics of the mosquito could alter how other creatures live and act, which may change our own approach to life.
Here are some additional pros and cons to think about regarding genetically modified mosquitoes.
Additional Pros of Genetically Modified Mosquitoes
1. It could lower the population of biting insects over time.
Genetically modifying mosquitoes to prevent disease transmission is essentially changing the evolution timeline of the insect. Because of the rapid developments within the species, there is a good chance that the number of biting insects will be reduced over time without affecting the overall population. If given enough time, the superior mosquitoes would eventually take over and that might eliminate the itchy bites for good.
2. Testing results have been generally successful.
Several communities have experimented with genetically modifying mosquitoes to change their biting habits already. Field-testing results have shown that there have not been any significant short-term impacts on humans by this practice. Although there are no long-term results as of yet to look at, the initial testing results have been generally successful. That is why there is so much hope for the potential of this effort.
3. No pesticides or insecticides are required.
Genetically modifying mosquitoes would reduce the number of pesticides and insecticides that are currently used to control population levels. Although products like DEET would still be required for protection against ticks and other biting insects, the threat from mosquitoes would be severely reduced and that would stop a number of chemicals from being introduced into local environments.
4. Population reductions of harmful insects are almost immediate.
Genetically modified insects have been introduced in Brazil and the Cayman Islands by a British company called Oxitec. The results collected from their introduction of modified insects shows that the populations of potentially dangerous mosquitoes can be reduced by up to 90% in 5 years or less. Some residents in the experimental areas are still concerned about mosquito safety and that there may be risks that have not been discovered as of yet.
5. It requires little human effort to reduce mosquito populations.
Once the genetically modified insects have been introduced to an environment, the insects take care of the rest of the job on their own. The goal is to have modified male mosquitoes mate with unmodified female mosquitoes. The offspring from such a union does not typically survive for long. It is that action which reduces population levels and creates biting safeguards for high-risk areas of disease transmission.
6. It can supplement existing mosquito control efforts.
Genetically modifying mosquitoes doesn’t need to replace targeted spraying and other forms of mosquito control. Introducing modified mosquitoes can supplement current control efforts to make both more effective. Even something as simple as a mosquito trap can help to control local population levels while the genetic modifications work to change the life cycle goals of the mosquito.
Additional Cons of Genetically Modified Mosquitoes
1. Pathogens are known to be adaptive.
Numerous bacteria have become resistant to antibiotics over the past 7 decades. Some bacteria are so difficult to treat because of their adaptability that they developed from drug exposure. In the United States, about 2 million people are infected by antibiotic-resistant bacteria every year. About 23,000 people die each year because of these infections. Genetically modifying mosquitoes might change disease transmission habits today, but what about in future generations? It is entirely possible that future diseases, transmitted by mosquitoes, could follow a similar course of resistance.
2. There are limited results documented.
Although the testing efforts of genetically modified mosquitoes has been mostly successful, there amount of observation and the number of testing zones has been mostly limited. We only have short-term results to draw conclusions upon and genetic modifications are a long-term control effort. For that reason, it may be better to continue collecting results instead of moving toward a large-scale implementation of this idea.
3. It is a costly venture compared to other control methods.
According to a report by CNBC, people who are familiar with the process that Oxitec has created to genetically modify mosquitoes would increase control budgets in local communities by up to 10 times their current amount. That would mean a budget of $10,000 would suddenly become $100,000 with this control option. The cost estimate is about $0.10 per introduced inset to a community. Even the best cost estimates suggest that using GM mosquitoes would triple current control costs.
4. The safety of pesticides is generally accepted by everyone.
Although there is 15+ years of research behind genetically modified research, there are several decades of research behind the safety of pesticides. The products that are used to control mosquito populations have been classified as being safe for use. That begs an important question: why release GM mosquitoes to affect an entire population when targeted spraying can control population levels in areas where humans are present?
5. What happens if offspring manages to survive?
In the movie Evolution, alien offspring cannot survive in Earth’s atmosphere… at first. Over time, each generation is able to better adapt until one is able to survive. Then more are able to survive until human populations are in peril. The same events could occur with genetically modified mosquitoes. Although the current process creates offspring death, there is a chance that the species will adapt. No one knows what could happen should that occur.
6. It is another type of mosquito being added to the environment.
Although claims to the contrary are sometimes made, adding a GM mosquito to any environment means another type of mosquito becomes present. That means there is an added risk to that environment because of its presence. Biting activities might become less dangerous, but there are other factors to consider. What happens if GM populations cannot overwhelm the current vampire-like populations that feed on human blood and transmit disease? At the very least, a false sense of security might occur.
7. The genetic modification techniques used may be questionable.
The modification techniques used to create GM mosquitoes involve gene insertion. The techniques for gene insertion are sometimes unreliable as they can create an altered gene expression or mutations that are unpredictable. Because of these potential outcomes, the modified genes could lead to new allergens, environmental toxins, or even cancer-causing agents. The DNA changes that are possible are quite broad.
8. The negative effect on bats could have monetary consequences.
The pest-control activities which bats provide to agricultural economies is equal to about $53 billion. Bats are effective pollinators of crops, inspired, in part, by the presence of mosquitoes. If insect population levels go down, then bat population levels could go down as well. The result of this occurrence would have a likely negative impact on current food pricing structures.
GM Mosquitoes: Are They Good or Are They Bad?
These genetically modified mosquito pros and cons offer different key points that should be considered before any community or government agency agrees to future field testing of the technology. With that said, the interest in using GM mosquitoes is on the rise. In the United States, the FDA has already approved a field test in the Florida Keys to determine if genetically modified mosquitoes can limit the spread of the Zika virus.
It is difficult to say that one side is right and the other is wrong in this debate. Each side offers valid concerns that must be discussed.
What you can do is control mosquito populations at the local level. Remove still water from your property whenever possible. Limit the amount of time you spend outside during twilight hours. If you do need to go outside, wear pants and long sleeves. Apply DEET bug sprays over your clothing and any exposed skin. Don’t forget to wear a cap or hat outside.