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GM Mosquitos Fight Disease, Crop Pests—But Safety Fears Surface

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Scientists are testing the effectiveness of genetically modified (GM) mosquitoes to control agricultural pests and insect-borne diseases.

These altered, male organisms, created by Oxford-based laboratory Oxitec, have already been released into the wild on the Grand Cayman Island and in Malaysia where the local mosquito carries the dengue fever virus, according to Reporter News. The virus causes higher fever, intense joint pain and occasionally death.

Supposedly, the experiment is contained, since the GM mosquitoes carry a self-destructive gene. They pass it on to their offspring when modified males mate with wild females, causing the offspring to die before adulthood.

But concerns are rising about the potentially harmful effects on public health and the environment. Once these genetically modified insects are released into the environment, they cannot be recalled.

While GM mosquitoes are supposed to die off quickly, a study by Friends of the Earth, GeneWatch UK and the Third World Network organization reveals that 15 percent of GM mosquitoes survived longer than intended after release through finding access to low levels of tetracycline, a chemical critics argue is available in low doses in sewage, reported the Daily Mail. Thus, GM mosquitoes have a chance to thrive.

The GM mosquito is also being engineered to fight malaria, a leading cause of death worldwide. And George Dimopoulos at the Johns Hopkins University Malaria Research Institute in Baltimore, Maryland, wants these mosquitoes to mate and live long lives like their natural brothers and sisters. Dimopoulos wants to eventually breed them with mosquitoes in the wild so off-spring are born with heightened immune systems, reported the Voice of America.

The Florida Keys hopes to conduct the United States' first open-air test of the modified mosquitoes, pending approval from the Agriculture Department, to boost field crop yields by ridding them of the Mediterranean fruit fly, or medfly, and the cotton-munching pink bollworm. “It’s a more ecologically friendly way to control mosquitoes than spraying insecticides,” Coleen Fitzsimmons, a spokeswoman for the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District, told The New York Times.