Mutant mosquitoes are the stuff of dystopian sci-fi. But these days, they're very real. You may have heard that Florida is considering releasing genetically modified mosquitoes in certain areas to curb the spread of Zika. The same company that makes the modified Aedes aegypti mosquitoes—a UK firm called Oxitec—is already dumping them around parts of Brazil to help stop the spread of Zika and other diseases (including dengue and chikungunya). And when I say dumping, I mean that quite literally, as in, dumped out of a moving van.
These mosquitoes have been genetically modified in a lab, bred to carry genes that make their offspring infertile, wiping out a generation of potential disease-carrying hosts before they have a chance to infect humans. This is the height of human intervention in nature, and an advanced biotechnological feat.
So it's odd to think that the culmination of their development is so… anti-climactic. When they're ready to leave the laboratory, the mosquitoes are loaded into what looks like a takeout soup container, and unceremoniously flung out of the window of a van as it drives through a neighborhood. Also onboard this skeetermobile: a spinning fan, which helps further spread the insects and carry them aloft into the air.
As decidedly low-tech as this GMO mosquito distribution approach seems, it appears to be working: Oxitec reports that the Aedes aegypti population in the areas where they tested the new mosquitoes was reduced by an incredible 96 percent in six months.
But this release method—storing them in some Tupperware and then shaking them out into the wind from a moving vehicle—is certainly bizarre to behold. I'm not sure how else one might send hundreds of thousands of mosquitoes back out into the wild, but this was not what I imagined.
Guilherme Trivellato, Oxitec's project manager for Piracicaba, Brazil, says of the process on the company's blog:
"At our breeding facility, we load pots with up to a thousand male mosquitoes each and put those pots into a van. We can get up to 800,000 insects into the van per trip and then go through a neighborhood three to five times a week. We have predefined release points and blow the males out of the van using an adapted fan. We actively monitor Aedes aegypti using mosquito egg traps in the neighborhood between releases and adjust how many mosquitoes we send out based on how effectively the treatment is already working."
These mosquitoes are lovers only, not fighters. They don't bite. Still, the video will make you itch.
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