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Key West Gets A Step Closer To Genetically-Modified Mosquitoes Experiment

Eli Christman/ Flickr

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has agreed to work with a British company looking to test out genetically-modified mosquitoes in the U.S.

British biotechnology company Oxitec Ltd has been waiting for a U.S. federal agency to sign on as a partner so they could test out these altered mosquitoes in Key West.

In the past few years, Key West has had a problem with mosquitoes in the area spreading Dengue-- but Oxitec thinks they can kill off a large part of this mosquito population with their altered mosquitoes.

Reuters reported a few months ago how this would work:

Oxitec's GM technique involves introducing sterile males into the mosquito population so they mate with females thereby reducing the overall birth rate. One female mosquito can lay 70-80 eggs at a time and maybe 500 in its lifetime. "If we upset the balance so there are more males that are sterile than their fertile equivalent, then the female has more chance of mating with one of ours," Parry told Reuters. "We call it birth control for insects." The Aedes aegypti mosquitoes are very hard to eradicate, Parry said, noting that they are resistant to chemicals and like to inhabit spaces under homes where aerial spraying cannot reach them.

Oxitec has held town hall meetings in the Keys trying to get folks there on board, even though a big population there has already said they disapprove of this.

One of the selling points for this experiment has been that the the Florida Keys Mosquito Control unit already spends $1 million a year on getting rid of mosquitoes. If this experiment were to work, the Keys could save quite a bit of money.

However, things have been moving slowly-- until now.

According to the Florida Keys Keynoter

Though a potential release date could be years away, the head of public health research for Oxitec Ltd. in Abindon, England, says the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has agreed to work with the company to possibly one day permit the company to conduct trials in the U.S. "We initially went through the [U.S. Department of Agriculture] from 2008 to 2011, but they came back with a letter of no jurisdiction, which meant they didn't think they were the agency to approve the trial," Derric Nimmo said. "The [FDA] stepped in about six or eight months ago and said they'd consider us and after a few months, they said they'd be the regulatory agency for our technology," Nimmo said. "We've been working with them to do an environmental assessment of the technology, which will hopefully publish sometime soon. I can't give a date on that unfortunately." Nimmo said the FDA would require a "field trial" to investigate Oxitec's technology, which is where Key West and the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District come into play.

As pointed out by Grist, folks in the Keys really have few options here. They can either keep worrying about mosquitoes, continue to spend a lot of money and suffer the consequences of widespread insecticide, or try out some genetically modified mosquitoes.