genetically modified mosquitoes

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A plan to test genetically modified mosquitoes in the Florida Keys has received approval from the federal government.

NPR was on the scene when the first genetically modified mosquitoes were released in a lab in Italy.
Rob Stein, Pierre Kattar and Ben de la Cruz, / YouTube

An intern

This post was updated at at 12:15 p.m. on Sept. 12

The prospect of genetically modified mosquitoes is back for the Florida Keys — just as a new study raises concerns about the technology.

Scientists have launched a major new phase in the testing of a controversial genetically modified organism: a mosquito designed to quickly spread a genetic mutation lethal to its own species, NPR has learned.

For the first time, researchers have begun large-scale releases of the engineered insects, into a high-security laboratory in Terni, Italy.

"This will really be a breakthrough experiment," says Ruth Mueller, an entomologist who runs the lab. "It's a historic moment."

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People who live in the Florida Keys have been waiting for years to find out whether the island chain will be the first place in the U.S. to try genetically modified mosquitoes as a method of controlling the pests.

They're going to have to wait awhile longer.

For the first time, scientists have demonstrated that a controversial new kind of genetic engineering can rapidly spread a self-destructive genetic modification through a complex species.

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As the rainy season returns — along with the disease-carrying mosquitoes that reproduce in standing water — the public is getting another chance to comment on one proposed method for fighting mosquitoes.

Oxitec

The company that wants to hold the first U.S. trial of genetically modified mosquitoes in the Florida Keys and Keys residents who oppose the trial don't agree on much.

But representatives from both sides said Thursday they are happy with the recent announcement that federal oversight of the proposed trial will be moved from the Food and Drug Administration to the Environmental Protection Agency.

"We think it's a good thing," said Derric Nimmo, principal scientist at Oxitec, the company that has developed a genetically modified Aedes aegypti mosquito.

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When Monroe County held a nonbinding referendum last year on whether  to allow the experimental release of genetically modified mosquitoes, most voters said yes.

This was as the mosquito-borne Zika crisis was exploding. The Food and Drug Administration had already started to clear the way for the field trial.

But residents of Key Haven--the proposed site of the mosquito control experiment--voted against it. And the company that breeds the mosquitoes started looking for another site.

Officials plan to release lab-reared, bacteria-infected mosquitoes in the Florida Keys in March.


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Most voters in the Florida Keys said in a Nov. 8 referendum that they were in favor of releasing genetically modified mosquitoes in the Keys.

In the Florida Keys on Election Day, along with the presidential race, one of the most controversial items on the ballot dealt with Zika. In a nonbinding vote countywide, residents in the Florida Keys approved a measure allowing a British company to begin a trial release of genetically modified mosquitoes. Armed with that approval, local officials voted Saturday to try out what they hope will be a new tool in the fight against Zika.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

  While Florida Keys residents debate the use of genetically modified mosquitoes ahead of a November referendum, a new survey finds that a majority of Floridians supports the concept.

Nancy Klingener / WLRN

  A survey of households in Key Haven, the neighborhood proposed for the first U.S. trial of genetically modified mosquitoes, found a majority of respondents opposed to the test.

Researchers from the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore sent surveys to every household in the neighborhood.

Nancy Klingener / WLRN

  While Florida is focusing on the prospect of the Zika virus getting a foothold in the state, the focus in the Florida Keys is on Aedes aegypti, the mosquitoes that carry the disease.

That's because the British company Oxitec has proposed its first U.S. trial of a genetically modified version of the mosquito in a Keys neighborhood. The Cayman Islands, site of the first-ever field trial six years ago, recently agreed to go forward with releasing the Oxitec mosquitoes.

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