Lately I have found I need to force myself to follow science stories about something besides the pandemic. A story I consider hopeful involves genetically modified mosquitoes; we are developing a new tool that can reduce disease and save lives.
The goal is to dramatically reduce the mosquito population. Mosquitoes, by biting people and injecting some of their saliva, spread diseases such as yellow fever, dengue fever and malaria. Malaria kills about 600,000 people a year, mostly outside the U.S.
The new tool being developed involves modifying the genes of male mosquitoes. The goal is to design a male mosquito that will behave typically, but whose female offspring die almost immediately.
The male mosquito's male offspring, on the other hand, continue to carry the modified genes into the next generation and behave normally. If the system works as designed, the modified genes will spread throughout the male mosquito population, continually killing the females.
The net effect, we hope, is that the mosquito population decreases dramatically.
Before diving into more details, I think it is worth marveling at the clever approach and the wonder of the technology. Designing genes isn't easy, but we have made tremendous progress in the past 20 or so years. This goal of modifying mosquito genes is only attempted because of all that progress.
That design description is the goal. The in-real-life version will be different, but hopefully only in small ways. This technology is, of course, very powerful. That makes it potentially dangerous and we need to be appropriately careful.
For example, eliminating a species can sometimes strongly affect other species. If mosquitoes provided an important food source or were an important predator, then mosquitoes' disappearance could create an imbalance among species and potentially create environmental havoc.
In the case of mosquitoes, however, I have found no specialists claiming that mosquitoes play such a role in their environment. As a non-expert, I found that pretty surprising.
The news in the past month has involved the U.K. company Oxitec, which has received a special permit from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to release these genetically modified mosquitoes in Texas and Florida. They will release the mosquitoes in batches every two weeks for two years.
They will be measuring how much the mosquito population decreases as well as various environmental effects.
Anyone who has visited the Florida Keys in mosquito season can guess why it was chosen.
There have been some objections.
Unfortunately, the general fear of genetically modified anything plays some role here. In an earlier Oxitec study in Brazil, for example, some semi-wild speculation made people afraid the company was creating more dangerous mosquitoes. That fear was unjustified. When modifying genes is involved, however, some people seem to fear even without strong evidence.
It can be difficult to figure out when fearful speculation is justified and when it isn't. I try to avoid using my own judgment as much as possible and instead rely on the people who spend their careers studying mosquitoes and their environment. If there appears to be consensus among that group of experts, then I have faith that testing this tool is the most reliable path forward.
It is also worth reminding ourselves that this new tool may save a lot of lives. Mosquitoes play a role in deadly diseases. People die. Before objecting to genetically modified mosquitoes, each of us should spend time imagining the life experiences of those in danger of malaria every year.
Christer Watson, of Fort Wayne, is a professor of physics at Manchester University. Opinions expressed are his own. He wrote this column for The Journal Gazette, where his columns normally appear the first and third Tuesday of each month.