Scientific American is running a story about using genetically modified Mosquitoes to annihilate Mosquito populations. Slashdot picked up on the debate only a few days later, pointing to an article in Gizmag aptly called Genetic Genocide. Mosquitoes are notorious people killers, accounting for 700 million infections a year and killing over 2 million people annually, according to Wikipedia. The Gizmag article goes even further, saying:
“War, plague, famine, heart disease, cigarettes, road trauma: six very effective killers of human beings. But they’re all amateurs when their records are compared to the number one mass murderer of all time. The humble mosquito, and the deadly diseases it carries, is estimated to have been responsible for as many as 46 billion deaths over the history of our species. That staggering number is even more frightening in context – it means that mosquitoes are alleged to have killed more than half the humans that ever lived.”
Like insectian Femme Fatales, it’s only female Mosquitoes that bite. The tiny bloodsuckers feed exclusively on humans. They’re resilient predators, who can breed in a little thimble of stagnant water. There is no cure or vaccine for Dengue Fever, one of the many plagues they often carry in their blood. I’ve often wondered if the little monsters inspired ancient bards to invent vampires? There’s no doubt, they’re one of our worst natural enemies. And now research scientists have come up with a doomsday weapon against them: genetics.
The basics are simple. Anthony James, a researcher at UC Irvine, figured out a way to splice genes that destroy the female’s flying muscles. The males mate and females are born flightless. Unable to lift off, they can’t feed or fly or mate, so they starve to death on the water. If the mother gave birth to any other females, they die too. The males live and now carry the hacked gene. In cages in Mexico, James has already shown the modified gene can quickly decimate a Mosquito population.
James has at least acting responsibly, testing his creations in private. But since no laws exist governing genetically modified insects, others have pursued more aggressive strategies.
From the Scientific American article:
“James’s colleague Luke Alphey, founder of the U.K.-based biotechnology company Oxitec, has quietly pursued a more aggressive test strategy. In 2009 and 2010 his organization took advantage of the minimal regulations in the Caribbean’s Grand Cayman island to release millions of genetically modified mosquitoes into the wild. James first learned of the experiments when Alphey described them publicly at a conference in Atlanta in 2010—14 months after the fact. Since then, Oxitec has continued the trials, releasing modified mosquitoes in Malaysia and Brazil.”
The question is whether we should wipe out Mosquitoes everywhere? The fact is we have absolutely no idea what the repercussions of this would be. This is not a tree huger thing, as a few idiots have claimed on other blogs. This is pure practical thinking. Everything is intricately and infinitely connected. Kill Mosquitoes and the creatures that live on them die off too. It starts a chain reaction.
Another thing to consider is that evolution doesn’t take eons. It can happen fast. If you manage to destroy 80% of Mosquitoes, the ones that survive are sure to evolve defenses that make them even more resilient. Now you have a super-predator. Nature has a way of resetting itself. Let’s not forget that the Mosquito may even serve a necessary purpose to keep the human population in check. We’ve already hit a billion people on the planet. It only took a few decades for us to go from 6 to 7 billion people, despite tiny vampires killing off a few million of us a year. The next billion will take half that time.
The last problem this creates is one the James pointed out: it could turn public opinion against genetic modification, a science still in its infancy. That would be the real shame, because it has a lot of potential to make lives better. We have the power to take control and direct our evolution, make ourselves naturally immune to disease, lengthen our lives, increase our intelligence. We may never get to go there, because some irresponsible idiot decides to unleash modded Mosquitoes into the wild. To think they can’t travel is naive. It’s probably already happened. Even though the Caribbean is “isolated” nature has a way of breaking through barriers we set up for it. Gengineered Mosquitoes may have already left the testing zone and traveled to greener pastures. The consequences are impossible to see. And of course, our politicians are not that bright. They probably will write laws that govern gene hacking with typical, sweeping, short-sightedness. Nothing like giving a politician a platform to act out of ignorance.
We have a Doomsday weapon. The question is, do we have a right to use it? As Einstein said “we don’t know one millionth of one percent about anything.” With that kind of limited insight, can we really predict the consequences of such an audacious and arrogant act? It feels like Hubris to me.