Wednesday, January 4, 2012
Release of genetically altered mosquitoes delayed
By Kevin Wadlow
January 04, 2012
Confusion over government permits will delay the planned release of genetically altered mosquitoes in Key West for several months.
The pilot program outlined by the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District would release a test batch of about 5,000 to 10,000 mosquitoes — the Aedes aegypti species that carries dengue fever — that have been specifically bred to produce offspring that die young.
Once planned for January, any release now will can occur no sooner than “late spring,” said district Executive Director Michael Doyle.
In theory, the released male bugs with faulty breeding genes will compete with natural mosquitoes, sharply reducing the overall production of future generations. Male mosquitoes do not bite.
An international environmental group, Friends of the Earth, this month issued statements that urge a more skeptical view of what would be “the first-ever release of genetically engineered mosquitoes in the U.S.”
Doyle said in an e-mail that the Friends of Earth campaign does not affect estimated time of release.
The delay mostly can be blamed on uncertainty over which state and federal agencies should review the project. Permit approval “appeared imminent several months ago,” he said.
“A regulatory decision has been delayed while both federal and state agencies discuss under which type of permit this new type of technique would be approved,” Doyle said. “The intended trial does not neatly fit into normal permit processes.”
The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services regulates chemical and biological products but not insect releases, Doyle said.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture oversees “sterile-insect techniques” used to control agricultural pests “in fields, not cities,” he said. Wildlife agencies may have to be consulted.
“It takes time to both find the proper regulatory venue and complete the process,” Doyle said.
Oxitec, an English company working with Mosquito Control, says it has released genetically altered mosquitoes in the Cayman Islands, Malaysia and Brazil with positive results on reducing insect population.
“The genetic aspect adds some mystery to some,” Doyle said, “but to most entomologists, it’s just a new twist on an old technique.”
Friends of the Earth staff said the planned mosquito release in Key West creates “health, environmental and ethical challenges” that should be carefully considered.
“Who will regulate their release and who will be legally and financially liable if something goes wrong?” the group’s biotechnology specialist Eric Hoffman asked. “Will Oxitec be required to obtain the free and informed consent of Key West residents?”
Friends of the Earth disputes the claim that releasing more mosquitoes can reduce the occurrence of disease, and questions how Oxitec can assure no female mosquitoes will be released accidentally.
Doyle said Friends of the Earth “brings up some very interesting concerns, many of which need to be addressed during the permit process.”
Other issues raised by the group show a “misunderstanding of our local ecology,” he said.
The dengue-carrying mosquito is a nonnative species not numerous enough to provide a food source for wildlife, he said. “Reducing its numbers to near zero would have a negligible effect on the Key West urban ecosystem and virtually none on wildlife as a whole.”
Doyle said Mosquito Control staff has worked in Key West to publicize its altered-mosquito plan for “nearly two years.”
“There has been almost no public interest to date,” he said. “I expect that most questions will be answered during the formal permitting process. My goal is to allay any concerns with the facts of the science behind this promising technique.”