In the mosquito breeding rooms of the British company, scientists line up fresh eggs, each the size of a grain of salt. The researchers inject each egg with a small amount of synthetic DNA.
For four days, technicians from Oxitec care for the eggs. Injection survivors face a lot of tests to make sure their genetic modification is successful.
The federal government recently approved an experiment in which millions of engineered mosquitoes could be released in California.
Half the world's population could be saved from the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which can spread diseases such as yellow fever, chikungunya and dengue to humans. Female offspring produced by these modified insects will die and the population will collapse.
Precise. Environmentally sound. The company says on its website that its product is non-toxic.
Scientists critical of the proposal are not from the company. They say unleashing the experimental creatures into nature has risks that haven't yet been fully studied, including possible harm to other species or unexpectedly making the local mosquito population harder to control.
Scientists who see the potential of genetic engineering are uneasy about releasing the insects into neighborhoods because of how difficult the trials are.
Natalie Kofler, a bioethicist at Harvard Medical School, said there needs to be more transparency about why the experiments are being done.
She pointed out that the benefits of the technology in California are lower than they would be in more tropical regions of the world. California has never had a case in which an Aedes aegypti was found to transmit disease.
The company chose California because the Aedes aegypti mosquitoes have spread rapidly after being discovered in the state a decade ago, according to Nathan Rose. Eggs can be laid in a small space as small as a bottle cap.
In 13 weeks, the company's mosquito reduced the population in a Brazilian neighborhood.
The data from the Florida Keys experiment has not been released yet. It hasn't yet published any of the results in a peer-reviewed journal.
On March 7, the US Environmental Protection Agency granted a permit for the release of genetically modified insects in five counties.
The company plans to start the release in northern Tulare County in the Central Valley, where it has a partnership with the local mosquito control district.
The state Department of Pesticide Regulation must approve the experiment.
The synthetic DNA was inserted.
The Aedes aegypti that was captured in Mexico was used to create the OX5034. The scientists inserted the self-limiting genes into the insects.
The female offspring of engineered male mosquitoes are killed when they are released into neighborhoods. The company says that the Aedes aegypti is the only species that is lethal to humans.
There is no danger of the public being bitten by an engineered insect because the company is releasing only males. Female mosquitoes carry disease.
The scientists put a fluorescent marker gene into the modified bugs. The mosquitoes glow when they are exposed to a specific color of light and the company can track them.
The company plans to use the data from the California experiment to try to get full commercial approval of its engineered mosquitoes from the EPA, a goal that would substantially increase the private company's value. It hopes to sell its technology in the U.S. and around the world for the fall army worm and the soybean looper.
Third Security is a private company founded by a billionaire. The former lawyer became wealthy by founding and investing in pharmaceutical companies. He received more than $1 billion in 2007, when his company was purchased by another company.
Kirk has focused on the creation of experimental products. The genetically modified salmon created by the company AquaBounty is one of his investments. AquaBounty is raising fish for commercial sale in Indiana and Prince Edward Island.
Try out in the Central Valley.
When it comes to the environment, growing modified fish inside a factory raises different issues than releasing winged experimental creatures into the wild, which the company hopes to do soon in Tulare County if state regulators agree.
The company wants to release its mosquitoes at 48 different locations. The company said it would release 3.5 million mosquitoes a week.
Angel Garcia, who lives near the area where the first engineered bugs may be released, said it was alarming.
The outreach worker for Californians for Pesticide Reform pointed to a hiring event that was held in Tulare on March 17. The flyer said it was looking for field and lab technicians.
He said it was as if this was already a done deal.
Rose told The Times that the company was still waiting for state approval while also continuing with plans to build a research facility in Visalia.
The company's proposal will take at least several months to complete, according to state officials. Public comments can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org until April 19.
Scientists are concerned that releasing genetically modified mosquitoes into neighborhoods could cause more harm than good.
The EPA said it had reviewed a study by researchers at Yale who found that the local mosquito population in an area of Brazil had been transferred with the help of the bugs. When the study was published, the researchers had exaggerated their findings, and the editors of the journal added a note to the article that said some of the language may have been misleading.
The transfer of genes from mosquitoes to the wild population was a concern for the EPA. According to a memo written by EPA scientists, the likelihood of this happening with the OX5034 strain was likely to be significantly higher than what the Yale study had found with an earlier generation.
Rose said that Oxitec was expecting it. He said that the company designed its mosquitoes so that they wouldn't be found in the wild population. He said that the mosquitoes with the company's genes have female offspring that die, and they are more vulnerable to chemical insecticides than the Aedes aegypti now in California.
An EPA spokesman said regulators expected mosquitoes with the corporate genes to disappear from the environment within 10 generations because they are not able to reproduce as successfully as local populations.
To prove this, the agency requires Oxitec to monitor neighborhoods for mosquitoes that have their genes from engineered insects until no mosquitoes are found for at least 10 weeks.
Farmers in the Central Valley use antibiotics in their animals, posing a risk to the experiment.
The antibiotic tetracycline is used to raise the bugs. The females of the modified mosquitoes can survive if they are exposed to tetracycline.
Because of the risk posed by the antibiotic, the EPA required Oxitec not to release its mosquitoes within 500 meters of any commercial grove, livestock facility or human waste treatment plant.
If any female mosquitos survive and are found, the agency required the company to alert regulators. If there are problems, the EPA could shut down the experiment.
The EPA believed that the release would have no noticeable effects on wildlife, including birds, bats or fish.
Regulation and technology.
Scientists have gained increasing powers through genetic engineering. Monsanto's modified corn is common in American fields, making farming easier and earning huge profits for their corporate developers.
Scientists worry that regulators are overmatched as the science grows more complex. The EPA's regulations are not strong enough to protect the public.
Kofler and four other academic scientists wrote in 2020 that they were concerned that current government oversight and scientific evaluation of GM mosquitoes did not ensure their responsible deployment.
The group showed how the EPA relied on internal data from the companies to make its decisions. The companies have a conflict of interest since they could make money if the technology is approved, they said.
They wrote that EPA scientists should seek the opinion of independent experts before approving the products.
The EPA had policies to ensure the corporate data was sound, and it had sought advice from other sources before approving the trial, according to the EPA.
The group worried that the EPA was getting caught a little flat-footed.
She said it was not a modern enough regulatory structure for a very modern and complicated technology.
The Los Angeles Times.
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