In the lab, the genetically modified mosquito larvae glow green and red to help researchers track them. The bugs' DNA has been tweaked with a killer gene that will wipe out the next generation of blood-suckers before they can latch onto humans. Millions of the scientifically created bugs are released into the wild, in theory putting a stop to wretched diseases such as dengue fever and chikungunya.
That may sound like the premise of a Michael Crichton plot, but in fact the GMO mosquitoes have already been released en masse in Brazil and the Cayman Islands. Now, researchers hope to do the same in the Florida Keys as early as this spring.
The researchers from British firm Oxitec have been breeding the specially designed mosquitoes in Marathon for years. They've now applied for FDA approval to release their mosquitoes this spring, with the aim of cutting down the population of Aedes aegypti, the type of mosquito that carries the debilitating dengue fever.
"This is essentially using a mosquito as a drug to cure disease," Michael Doyle, the executive director of the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District, tells the AP.
The researchers say the mosquitoes are perfectly safe; they release only modified male mosquitoes, which don't bite humans, unlike their female counterparts. When the GM males breed, the next generation is born with a faulty gene that quickly kills them.
The process has already been successfully used in Brazil and the Caymans, where 96 percent of the targeted mosquitoes were killed, Oxitec says.
Critics, though, worry about the unforeseen consequences of dropping millions of human-altered creatures into an ecosystem.
But the company insists that such fears are overblown and that its work in other countries has been completely successful. "We are confident of the safety of our mosquito, as there's no mechanism for any adverse effect on human health," a company spokesperson tells the AP. "The proteins are nontoxic and nonallergenic."
The Keys Mosquito Control District is awaiting the FDA's ruling on the bugs before releasing any of Oxitec's mosquitoes into the wild.