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Florida Medical Entomology Laboratory

Florida Medical Entomology Laboratory

Genetically modified mosquitoes


Recorded "Educating the Public on Genetically Modified Mosquitoes" webinar can be viewed here https://fmel.ifas.ufl.edu/seminars/eva-buckner-gm-mosquitoes-webinar/


Table of Contents:

Introduction

Frequently asked questions about genetically modified mosquitoes

1. What is a GM mosquito?

2. How are GM mosquitoes produced?

The Oxitec/Florida keys mosquito control district project

3. What is the goal of the pilot project?

4. What type of GM mosquitoes are being used?

5. What genetic modifications have been made to the Oxitec mosquitoes?

6. What will happen during the project?

7. How woll releasing more mosquitoes lead to there being fewer mosquitoes in the Florida Keys?

8. Has the Oxitec technology been tested elsewhere?

Impact on human health

9. Can bites from the released GM Aedes aegypti mosquitoes make people sick?

10. Will the use of GM Aedes aegypti mosquitoes reduce my risk of contracting a mosquito-transmitted desease?

Impact on the environment

11. Is the Aedes aegypti mosquito native to Florida?

12. Will the GM Aedes aegypti mosquitoes released by Oxitec disturb the ecosystem?

13. Will the Oxitec Aedes aegypti stay in nature forever?

14. Will the use of Oxitec Aedes aegypti mosquitoes reduce pesticide use?

15. Isn't it dangerous to introduce genetic mutations into nature?

16. What can i do to help ensure that field trials involving GM mosquitoes are performed in a way that has minimal impact on the environment and provides maximum benefit to those affected by mosquito-transmitted diseases?

Summary

Additional literature of interest

References

About the authors/conflict of interest


Introduction

Aedes aegypti (Figure 1), also known as the dengue or yellow fever mosquito, is an annoying, biting, pest and the species most responsible for transmitting dengue, chikungunya, yellow fever and Zika viruses to humans. Ae. aegypti are commonly found in tropical and sub-tropical regions, as well as in some temperate areas. Female Ae. aegypti preferentially feed on human blood to get the essential nutrients they need to produce their eggs. Because of this, Ae. aegypti typically live where people do, and are commonly found in urban and suburban environments. A mosquito’s blood feeding behavior is what causes these viruses to spread: after they bite someone who is already infected, they are can spread the virus to the next person they feed on. Because of this, Ae. aegypti is a major threat to human health in the many areas of the world where the mosquito and at least one of the viruses it transmits occur. Ae. aegypti is established in many areas of Florida and regular introductions of dengue, chikungunya, and Zika viruses have caused local outbreaks that resulted in 182, 12, and 300 human cases, respectively, over the past 15 years in the state (Kendrick et al. 2014, Rey 2014, Phillip et al. 2019, FDOH 2021).

Figure 1

Figure 1. Adult female Aedes aegypti mosquito.  Photographed by Jim Newman, University of Florida

Effective vaccines are not available for most of the diseases caused by Ae. aegypti-transmitted viruses, so current disease prevention relies on controlling mosquito populations. Because Ae. aegypti spend their immature, aquatic stages (Figure 2) in water-filled containers like buckets, jars, and tires, source reduction (removing the containers that immature mosquitoes can develop in) is essential to Ae. aegypti control (Figure 3). Insecticides are also used to target flying adult mosquitoes. However, these control methods are not perfect: it can be hard to find all the containers that Ae. aegypti use to develop. Also, over-use and misuse of insecticides like pyrethroids have led to many mosquito populations, including those in Florida, becoming resistant. The limited success of conventional control strategies against Ae. aegypti has led scientists to search for new tools to target these mosquitoes and reduce the impact of the diseases they spread. One of these new tools is genetically modified (GM) mosquitoes.

More sharper image of mosquito cycle

Figure 2.  Aedes aegypti life cycle.

Graphic representation of different containers

Figure 3.  Immature Aedes aegypti mosquitoes are often found in a water collected in containers like used oil drums, flower pots, used tires, and open bottles.

In May 2020, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) approved Oxitec’s Experimental Use Permit to carry out pilot projects in the Florida Keys. Oxitec is a biotechnology company founded in 2002 out of Oxford University in the United Kingdom. They will be collaborating with the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District. One of the pilot projects will involve releasing Oxitec’s GM Ae. aegypti male mosquitoes (strain OX5034) into a small area to test their ability to reduce the population of wild Ae. aegypti mosquitoes. This project will be the first time that GM mosquitoes are released into nature in the U.S. and is expected to begin in early spring 2021 and continue through spring 2022. 

The purpose of this document is to provide essential information about GM mosquitoes to the public and those involved in mosquito control in Florida, the U.S., and beyond. Below we present a series of answers to frequently asked questions about the nature of GM mosquitoes, the argument for using GM mosquitoes to control mosquito-transmitted diseases, and the potential impact of this project on the environment and human health. Our hope is that these answers will provide readers with insight into the reasons why GM mosquitoes are being tested for mosquito control in Florida and elsewhere. 

List of abbreviations

GM – genetically modified 

Frequently Asked Questions about Genetically Modified Mosquitoes 

1. What is a GM mosquito?

GM mosquitoes have genomes (genome – the complete genetic material of an organism) that have been altered in order to prevent the transmission of important diseases like dengue, West Nile and malaria. These genetic changes are usually heritable, meaning they are passed on to the mosquito’s offspring when they reproduce.

2. How are GM mosquitoes produced?

GM mosquitoes are produced using a technique called embryonic microinjection. This involves injecting freshly laid mosquito eggs with a very small needle. The eggs are injected with DNA that integrates into the mosquito genome and specifically activates or inactivates a target gene. 

The Oxitec/Florida Keys Mosquito Control District Project 

3. What is the goal of the pilot project?

The goal is to reduce the number of Aedes aegypti mosquitoes in the Florida Keys. Ae. aegypti, commonly known as the dengue or yellow fever mosquito, is the mosquito species most responsible for transmitting dengue, chikungunya, yellow fever and Zika viruses to humans. It can also transmit dog heartworm to pets. If this project is successful it will decrease the risk of these diseases in the area.

4. What type of GM mosquitoes are being used?

Oxitec is using GM mosquitoes that are designed to suppress disease-transmitting mosquito populations. The mosquitoes they are using in the Florida Keys are known as Friendly™ Ae. aegypti. Only male Friendly™ mosquitoes are used in the project as female Friendly™ mosquitoes die before reaching adulthood. 

5. What genetic modifications have been made to the Oxitec mosquitoes?

Two genes have been introduced into the genomes of these mosquitoes. The first is a color marker that helps scientists tell the GM mosquitoes apart from wild mosquitoes. The second gene is called a self-limiting factor, which stops the production of proteins that are essential for mosquito survival, but only for female mosquitoes. This means that only male GM mosquitoes (which do not bite or take blood meals) will survive to adulthood.

Sharper image of pathway

Figure 4. How do GM mosquito releases reduce mosquito numbers and mosquito-transmitted disease incidence?

6. What will happen during the project?

Researchers and Florida Keys mosquito personnel will release large numbers of male GM mosquitoes. These will find and mate with wild female mosquitoes. Because of the self-limiting factor, they will produce only male offspring. The absence of female mosquitoes in the targeted population will quickly lead to a large drop in the number of Aedes aegypti mosquitoes in the area (Figure 4).

7. How will releasing more mosquitoes lead to there being fewer mosquitoes in the Florida Keys?

Oxitec will release many GM male mosquitoes, but every one of these males will play an active role in reducing the number of Aedes aegypti mosquitoes in the Florida Keys by mating. Every time a GM male mosquito successfully mates with a wild female mosquito it means there will be fewer mosquitoes in the next generation. This is a common strategy for mosquito control and has been used successfully with the sterile insect technique and the incompatible insect technique.

8. Has the Oxitec technology been tested elsewhere?

Yes. Oxitec have been testing their GM mosquitoes in other countries, including Brazil (Carvalho et al., 2015), the Cayman Islands (Harris et al., 2012), and Malaysia for the past ten years. Those experiments have all showed greater than 90% reduction in the local Aedes aegypti population, meaning the technology was effective.

Impact on Human Health 

9. Can bites from the released GM Aedes aegypti mosquitoes make people sick?

No. Only male mosquitoes will be released. Male mosquitoes are not capable of biting people or animals. Instead, they feed on nectar and other sources of sugar and may even play a role in pollination.

10. Will the use of GM Aedes aegypti mosquitoes reduce my risk of contracting a mosquito-transmitted disease?

This is the likely outcome of the project. Mosquitoes transmit pathogens that cause disease when they bite. Reducing the number of mosquitoes should mean that people in the release area are bitten less often, which will reduce their risk of exposure. However, only Ae. aegypti is being targeted by this project. There are still other mosquito species in the area that will be unaffected, and the risk associated with the pathogens they transmit, such as West Nile virus, will remain unchanged.

Impact on the Environment

 11. Is the Aedes aegypti mosquito native to Florida?

Ae. aegyptiis not a natural part of the food chain in Florida. It is a highly invasive mosquito that was introduced to the U.S. several hundred years ago during European colonization. It is now found across Florida and in other parts of the country, including Texas, Arizona, Nevada, and California. 

12. Will the GM Aedes aegypti mosquitoes released by Oxitec disturb the ecosystem?

This is not very likely. No animal relies solely on Ae. aegypti mosquitoes as a food source. Some animals (like bats, frogs, dragonflies and small fish) may feed on mosquitoes, but they also feed on many other insects, too. So, if there are fewer Ae. aegypti present in an area, animals will eat other insects. Additionally, independent tests have also shown that there is a negligible risk of the modified genes in the Friendly™ Ae. aegypti being transmitted to other animals or the environment.

13. Will the Oxitec Aedes aegypti stay in nature forever?

No. This technology is naturally self-limiting, which means that the mosquitoes that Oxitec releases into nature will gradually die off. This is expected to occur a few months after they stop releasing mosquitoes.

14. Will the use of Oxitec Aedes aegypti mosquitoes reduce pesticide use?

Potentially, if the experiments are successful. In trials conducted in Brazil and the Cayman Islands, the Oxitec technology reduced the local Ae. aegypti mosquito population size by more than 90%. If this success could be reproduced in the Florida Keys, it could reduce the reliance on chemical pesticides in that area. Scientists favor integrated mosquito management (IMM) solutions for mosquito control, which means using multiple tools together to give them the best chance of eliminating mosquito populations. 

 15. Isn’t it dangerous to introduce genetic mutations into nature?

Changes to DNA, including genetic mutations, are a regular and natural occurrence in animals and people. In fact, there are often genetic differences that naturally occur between populations of the same mosquito species when they live in different areas. The mosquitoes in this project do have two genes introduced into their genomes. However, before the project was approved by the EPA, scientists performed tests that did not show any evidence that those genes could spread to other animals or to the environment. Additionally, the fact that the Oxitec mosquitoes are self-limiting will reduce the chance that this type of transfer occurs.

16. What can I do to help ensure that field trials involving GM mosquitoes are performed in a way that has minimal impact on the environment and provides maximum benefit to those affected by mosquito-transmitted diseases?

You can make your voice heard in public forums and advocate that robust environmental studies and risk analyses are performed for these projects. You can recommend that stakeholders, including community groups, are consulted throughout the planning and experimentation processes, and that the groups undertaking the research share their data. You can also stay informed about the project, so that you can effectively communicate the science behind these projects to interested members of your community. All of these are essential parts of testing new mosquito control technologies. 

Summary

It is our hope that those who read this article will gain a better understanding of GM mosquitoes: why they are a useful tool for controlling mosquito-transmitted diseases, why there is a need to use them, and how they differ from conventional forms of mosquito control. Likewise, we hope that readers will gain insights into the potential impacts of the project, how the self-limiting nature of the Oxitec mosquitoes reduces the risk of environmental impact, and how the project will involve only male mosquitoes, which cannot transmit disease. Readers who are interested in this topic should look at the additional literature list below.

Additional literature of interest 

References 

  • Carvalho DO, McKemey AR, Garziera L, Lacroix R, Donnelly CA, Alphey L, Malavasi A, Capurro ML. Suppression of a Field Population of Aedes aegypti in Brazil by Sustained Release of Transgenic Male Mosquitoes. PLoS Negl Trop Dis. 2015 Jul 2;9(7):e0003864. doi: 10.1371/journal.pntd.0003864. PMID:26135160; PMCID:4489809.
  • Florida Department of Health (FDOH). 2021. Florida Arbovirus Surveillance Week 53: December 27, 2020-January 2, 2021. 2020 Week 53 Arbovirus Surveillance Report. (Accessed January 6, 2021)
  • Harris AF, McKemey AR, Nimmo D, Curtis Z, Black I, Morgan SA, Oviedo MN, Lacroix R, Naish N, Morrison NI, Collado A, Stevenson J, Scaife S, Dafa'alla T, Fu G, Phillips C, Miles A, Raduan N, Kelly N, Beech C, Donnelly CA, Petrie WD, Alphey L. Successful suppression of a field mosquito population by sustained release of engineered male mosquitoes. Nat Biotechnol. 2012 Sep;30(9):828-30. doi: 10.1038/nbt.2350. PMID:22965050.
  • Kendrick K, Stanek D, Blackmore C. 2014. Notes from the field: Transmission of chikungunya virus in the continental United States - Florida, 2014. MMWR 63: 1137. PMCID:4584604.
  • Philip C, Novick CG, Novick LF. 2019 Local transmission of Zika virus in Miami-Dade County. J Public Health Manag Pract 25: 277-287. PMID:30933006.
  • Rey JR. 2014. Dengue in Florida (USA). Insects 5: 991–1000. PMCID:4592614.

About the authors/conflict of interest: 

About UF/IFAS Florida Medical Entomology Laboratory (FMEL) - FMEL is a Research and Education Center that is part of the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences at the University of Florida. FMEL specializes in research, teaching and extension activities linked to medical entomology, including the transmission of arboviruses by mosquitoes. FMEL does not currently receive funding from Oxitec.

For more infomation, please contact Dr. Eric Caragata, Dr. Yoosook Lee, or Dr. Eva Buckner

Last updated 2/2/2021