In 2016, an epidemic of the Zika virus was linked to a high incidence of birth defects in South America and Central America. As winter turned to spring in the northern hemisphere, health officials correctly predicted the virus would spread to North America, coinciding with the breeding season of its major vector, the Aedes aegypti mosquito.
The range of the A. aegypti mosquito extends well into the southern United States. Because these same mosquitoes serve as vectors for other problematic diseases (dengue fever, yellow fever, and others), various methods of mosquito control have been proposed as solutions. Chemical pesticides have been used effectively in the past, and are likely to be used again; but because chemical pesticides can have negative impacts on the environment, some scientists have proposed an alternative that involves genetically engineering A. aegypti so that it cannot reproduce. This method, however, has been the subject of some controversy.
One method that has worked in the past to control pests, with little apparent downside, has been sterile male introductions. This method controlled the screw-worm fly pest in the southwest United States and fruit fly pests of fruit crops. In this method, males of the target species are reared in the lab, sterilized with radiation, and released into the environment where they mate with wild females, who subsequently bear no live offspring. Repeated releases shrink the pest population.
A similar method, taking advantage of recombinant DNA technology, introduces a dominant lethal allele into male mosquitoes that is suppressed in the presence of tetracycline (an antibiotic) during laboratory rearing. The males are released into the environment and mate with female mosquitoes. Unlike the sterile male method, these matings produce offspring, but they die as larvae from the lethal gene in the absence of tetracycline in the environment. As of 2016, this method has yet to be implemented in the United States, but a UK company tested the method in Piracicaba, Brazil, and found an 82% reduction in wild A. aegypti larvae and a 91% reduction in dengue cases in the treated area. In August 2016, amid news of Zika infections in several Florida communities, the FDA gave the UK company permission to test this same mosquito control method in Key West, Florida, pending compliance with local and state regulations and a referendum in the affected communities.
The use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to control a disease vector has its advocates as well as its opponents. In theory, the system could be used to drive the A. aegypti mosquito extinct—a noble goal according to some, given the damage they do to human populations. But opponents of the idea are concerned that the gene could escape the species boundary of A. aegypti and cause problems in other species, leading to unforeseen ecological consequences. Opponents are also wary of the program because it is being administered by a for-profit corporation, creating the potential for conflicts of interest that would have to be tightly regulated; and it is not clear how any unintended consequences of the program could be reversed.
There are other epidemiological considerations as well. Aedes aegypti is apparently not the only vector for the Zika virus. Aedes albopictus, the Asian tiger mosquito, is also a vector for the Zika virus. A. albopictus is now widespread around the planet including much of the United States. Many other mosquitoes have been found to harbor Zika virus, though their capacity to act as vectors is unknown. Genetically modified strains of A. aegypti will not control the other species of vectors. Finally, the Zika virus can apparently be transmitted sexually between human hosts, from mother to child, and possibly through blood transfusion. All of these factors must be considered in any approach to controlling the spread of the virus.
Clearly there are risks and unknowns involved in conducting an open-environment experiment of an as-yet poorly understood technology. But allowing the Zika virus to spread unchecked is also risky. Does the threat of a Zika epidemic justify the ecological risk of genetically engineering mosquitoes? Are current methods of mosquito control sufficiently ineffective or harmful that we need to try untested alternatives? These are the questions being put to public health officials now.
Parker, N., Schneegurt, M., Thi Tu, A.-H., Forster, B. M., & Lister, P. (n.d.). Microbiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: https://openstax.org/details/books/microbiology