As noted in a recent article by The Atlantic, history is rife with pest control experiments gone terribly wrong. Today the stakes are higher than ever, as scientists are increasingly turning to genetic engineering to affect environmental change.
Earlier this year, the Zika virus, which is carried by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, was declared a worldwide public health threat., Besides calling for increased use of chemical sprays against mosquitoes, focus quickly turned to the idea of releasing genetically engineered (GE) mosquitoes to control populations.
The male transgenic mosquitoes, which are released to mate with females in the wild, carry a “suicide” or “self-destruct gene” that gets transferred to the offspring, killing them before they reach breeding maturity. To achieve this, protein fragments from the herpes virus, E. coli bacteria, coral and cabbage looper moth were inserted into the insects. Biotech company Oxitec refers to their GE mosquitoes as a “non-chemical insecticide,” and these controversial creatures are now another step closer to being released on U.S. soil.
Florida Keys Community is the Latest Testing Ground for Transgenic Mosquitos
With the Florida Keys community slated as the next testing ground for genetic engineering, meetings for Key Haven residents have already been held to discuss Oxitec’s proposed GE mosquito trial in the area. In early March, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released a draft of its environmental impact study of the GE mosquito, declaring it will have “no significant impact” on the health of residents or the environment in this Florida Keys’ community.
According to CNN, Zika wasn’t the original reason Oxitec’s transgenic mosquitoes were considered. The Aedes aegypti mosquito also carries the dengue, yellow fever and chikungunya virus, and outbreaks of dengue fever in the Florida Keys in 2009 and 2010 prompted local mosquito control officials to look for more effective options to control the non-native insect.
According to Oxitec, field tests in Piracicaba, Brazil, led to an 82 percent decline to the mosquito population over an eight-month period. In the Cayman Islands, 96 percent of native mosquitoes were suppressed in a 2010 field trial.
The Cayman Islands recently approved full deployment of the Oxitec GE mosquito, starting in June, with weekly releases of hundreds of thousands of mosquitoes scheduled to continue for at least nine months. However, while the FDA has given the transgenic mosquito the thumbs up, Key Haven residents are not particularly keen on being guinea pigs — especially since neither dengue, Zika, or any of the other diseases spread by Aedes aegypti pose a threat to health in the Florida Keys.
Mila de Mier, who lives in the small community of Key Haven, told CNN:
“Less than a mile from the release site is a senior center and a local school. That area was not one that was affected by dengue. Not a single case ever. So why does the FDA want to do an experiment here when they can do this all over the world? …
There has been no acceptance from community members. If the local and federal government fail to protect us and our wishes, our last option will be to trust the judicial system and bring it to the court. A legal battle is an option at this point.”
What Could Possibly Go Wrong?
While decimating Aedes aegypti populations may sound like a good solution to eliminate transmission of disease, there is always the potential for unforeseen side effects when a small part of a broad, interconnected ecosystem is manipulated.
A 2011 article in The New York Times brought up a number of concerns, including the possibility that these genes might infect human blood, not through insect bites, but by finding entry through skin lesions or inhalation. According to the Institute of Science in Society, such transmission could potentially create “insertion mutations” and other unpredictable types of DNA damage in the host.
Alfred Handler, Ph.D., a geneticist at the Agriculture Department in Hawaii, has also pointed out that mosquitoes can develop resistance to the lethal gene. If such mosquitoes were to be released, the resistance could spread to the offspring. According to Todd Shelly, an entomologist for the Agriculture Department in Hawaii, 3.5 percent of the insects in a laboratory test actually survived to adulthood, despite carrying the lethal gene.
Another factor that could make the GE mosquito backfire is the fact that Oxitec’s mosquitoes were designed to die in the absence of tetracycline. Tetracycline is introduced in the lab in order to keep the mosquitos alive long enough to breed, however tetracycline and other antibiotics are showing up in the environment, in both soil and surface water samples. The mosquitoes were genetically engineered under the assumption they would NOT encounter tetracycline in the wild, but with environmental tetracycline exposure now impossible to avoid, these insects could potentially thrive.
Last but not least, by employing so-called gene drive technology (which ensures that all offspring end up with the GE gene), concerns arise over the impact on biodiversity and the ecosystem as a whole. Some argue that the extinction of the Aedes aegypti would hardly result in ecosystem collapse, and this may well be true. However, the Aedes aegypti is certainly not the only insect being genetically altered and released into the wild.
The larger problem lies in the fact that population scale ecosystem engineering is taking place without proper regulatory oversight, transparency, or public discussion. Decades’ old regulations are being relied on for these novel technologies, and they are sorely inadequate for the task.
GE Diamondback Moths Being Field Tested
For example, Oxitec is also currently field testing a GE version of the diamondback moth, a known agricultural pest. The diamondback moth was the first crop pest to become resistant to DDT, and they’re rapidly developing resistance to other chemical pesticides as well, which is why Oxitec began working on a GE version of the moth.
It’s similar to their GE mosquitoes in that they pass on a genetic trait that kills the offspring before reaching maturity. Eventually, the entire species will die out from lack of reproduction.
The GE moths have already been laboratory tested in the U.K. and “caged” field trials took place the summer of 2015 in New York. Open field trials may take place as early as this summer. Many have opposed the field trials, including GeneWatch UK, the Center for Food Safety, Friends of the Earth, Food and Water Watch, and the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York. According to The Washington Post:
“We’re worried about what the effects of these trials outside of the cages [will be],’ said Liana Hoodes, policy adviser at the Northeast Farming Association of New York (NOFA-NY), citing concerns that the GE moths could spread beyond their trial sites and begin appearing on private growers’ farms.
Hoodes said NOFA-NY would like to see an impact analysis on the possible effects of GE moths on non-target species — that is, organisms besides diamondback moths — in case they happen to be eaten by birds or other animals or even accidentally consumed by humans.”
GE Bollworm Moths and Fruit Flies
Oxitec is also the creator of GE pink bollworm moths, which have already been unleashed over the fields of Arizona in an effort to overtake natural bollworm populations, as well as GE fruit flies. These also contain genes that prevent the species from reproducing. In Australia, where the Mediterranean fruit fly is one of the most common pest species, the Department of Agriculture and Food plans to conduct an indoor trial assessment on the use of GE fruit flies as a means of pest control.
So we’re seeing this creeping trend where pests of all kinds are being addressed by altering and eradicating the entire species. Subsequently, you cannot limit the conversation to any one species of insects. The question is, is it wise to eradicate pests by using gene drive technology that more or less assures extinction of the entire species?
Just how many pests can safely be vanished before the ecosystem is altered in some devastating way? There are all sorts of questions that are currently not being addressed in any comprehensive way.
Australia to Address Invasive Carp Problem With Herpes Virus
In related news, southeastern Australia is also planning to address the problem of overpopulation of invasive carp by unleashing the herpes virus on the fish. According to Newsweek:
“Carp are a huge problem in Australia. They were first introduced to fish farms in the country in the 1850s, but escaped en masse into the wild in the 1960s, and their populations have exploded ever since … The virus they plan on using is specific to carp, and kills up to 80 percent of the animals … It attacks their skin, kidneys and gills … killing them in a little over a week …
“[T]he virus appeared in carp farms in Southeast Asia in the 1990s, and hasn’t been shown to harm farmers and other people there … While the plan may sound a bit dodgy at first, research has shown that the carp herpesvirus (cyprinid herpesvirus 3)  doesn’t harm native fish species, eels, frogs, turtles, chickens, mice or water dragons (a type of lizard) …”
The irony here is that if it wasn’t for fish farms, they wouldn’t have this invasive species problem in the first place. Yet today, when concerns are brought forth about the dangers of GE fish escaping from farms and decimating the ecosystem, proponents insist that escapes would be “impossible.”
Aerial Application of Mosquito Killer Linked to Higher Rates of Autism
Up to this point, the warfare against pests has involved chemicals, and this too has been shown to have devastating side effects. According to recent research, higher rates of autism are found in areas exposed to annual aerial spraying of pyrethroids, a type of larvicide that kills mosquitoes, compared to areas where mosquito control is done primarily through pellets distributed on the ground.
“The authors report that kids living in zip codes where the spraying was done each summer had around a 25 percent higher risk of an autism diagnosis or developmental problem compared to kids living in areas without the aerial spraying,” Time Magazine writes.
According to Dr. Steve Hicks, assistant professor of pediatrics at Penn State College of Medicine:”Several studies have previously reported links between pesticide and autism risk. Our data suggests the way in which pesticides are applied might play some role.”
Previous research has found that pregnant women who are exposed to pyrethroids in their third trimester are more likely to give birth to autistic children, and animal studies suggest it causes neurological, immune, and reproductive damage. Some pyrethroids also act as endocrine disruptors by mimicking estrogen. Such hormone-disrupting chemicals can raise your levels of estrogen, thereby promoting the growth of estrogen-sensitive cancers such as breast cancer.
Besides the occasional aerial disbursement by your local mosquito control, there are more than 3,500 commercial products containing this insecticide. This includes items like roach sprays, flea bombs, and dog flea or tick collars and medicated shampoos. (Compounds that end in “thrin”, such as bifenthrin, permethrin and cypermethrin, are all pyrethroids.)
Biological Warfare Endangers Everyone, Everywhere
All of this begs the question, are we doing the right thing by waging war against pests with toxic chemicals and genetically engineered insects? It needs to be understood that there’s a price to pay, and increasingly, that price is human and environmental health. We’re poisoning our world, and ourselves, in the name of protecting the environment and public health. There’s something inherently wrong with that position.
Some are quick to say we have no other options. But this isn’t necessarily true. What’s lacking is the political and societal will to make the necessary changes, which involve decimating the chemical industry and fully embracing ecologically sound regenerative methods of agriculture. When nature is in balance, pests fail to gain the upper hand. They still exist, but they’re kept in check naturally.
Once the soil microbial population is rebuilt, everything else falls into place much easier. Not only are the plants significantly healthier and more nutrient dense, they’re also more resistant to plant diseases and pests. Certain plants, such as marigolds, can also work as pest repellents by giving off a fragrance that bugs do not like.
It may not be as effective as releasing a GE insect designed to decimate the entire species, or a potent toxin, but if we keep going the way we’re headed, we’re just going to encounter more of the same problems. I have no immediate answers to these dilemmas, but I believe we must begin a more open discussion about what we’re doing, and what the options are. We also need to implement more farsighted solutions rather than thinking mere weeks or months ahead. Our children’s futures depend on these decisions.