Today the CDC confirmed that the Zika virus, which is carried by the A. Aegypti mosquito, is responsible for thousands of birth defects in children. On top of that, public health officials are worried about other health affects of Zika, that could hurt not only humans in-vitro, but post-natal babies and adults.
As per usual in our technified and super-scientific age, cue the solution. That same A. Aegypti mosquito has been studied for some time due to the fact that it's responsible for transmitting both Malaria and Dengue fever. With such fatal diseases associated with it the medical, technology, and general scientific communities have given it a lot of attention. So much so that
- The Gates foundation has funded the mapping of the mosquito's genome
- UC Irvine has developed mosquitoes with strong immune systems that defeat the parasites that cause these debilitating and fatal diseases.
- The Center for Infection Disease Dynamics has developed a fungus that kills mosquitoes before parasites have enough time to turn the little insects into viable hosts.
You can imagine the amounts of cash that those three efforts took. But there's one that'll trump them all. About two years ago, in late March of 2014, NPR's RadioLab radio-show and podcast produced an episode called "Kill 'em All." In it, they spoke with a British-based lab called Oxitec. If ever there were an evil dystopian name to call your company, there you go. Oxitec's solution to the mosquito problem stands out from the others in that it's both radical in its manipulation of the insect and jaw dropping in its effects.
The company maintains biological farms or factories wherein they breed the doomsday mosquitoes A. Aegypti-- but their recipe for mosquito farming includes tweaking the bug just a little bit. Oxitec manipulates the DNA of A. Aegypti so that the males (which don't bite people to begin with) carry a special gene. This gene has no affect on the males, so when Oxitec releases these guys into the wild in vast numbers, the females are happy to mate with them. What happens next is the key.
Baby mosquitoes born of the Oxitec males are hindered by the gene. The gene hinders all of the males' offspring so that they don't survive until maturity-- effectively killing off the population of mosquitoes in the area by wiping out an entire generation.
Oddly enough this is tactic - wiping out a generation-- is what scares so many people about Zika.
So what are the consequences of this Dr. Frankenstein-type of science? There's not much debate about it actually. NPR reported earlier this year that both Rutgers and Penn State entomology professors were fine taking out the bug.
"If we took out Aedes aegypti, that would be something," [Andrew Reade of Penn State] adds. "Nothing good comes from them, just that people get really sick."
[Rutgers entomology professor Dina Fonseca] feels similarly. "I'm not worried about eradicating an invasive mosquito. It's an urban species that specializes on feeding on people," she says. "The result of removing them is health to humans and more people."
Still, one man's trash is another man's treasure. It's clear that the same qualities that make mosquitoes like A. Aegypti so abhorrent to mankind actually do jungles and rain forests like the Amazon an important service by making sure people don't regularly settle there, which would significantly add to the problem of global deforestation. By being at once annoying, painful and in the case of Zika, Dengue and Malaria, dangerous pests, mosquitoes help the Amazon, which has been called "The Lungs of the Earth," due to its role in generating the oxygen most life on the planet, from being easily reduced to ashes for the sake of condos, corporate head quarters or resorts. If the Amazon goes, we may all go soon thereafter.
That said, it's pretty clear that solutions like the one Oxitec and other firms like it have proposed is a clear winner for human-populated areas that don't have much reason to appreciate mosquitoes like the Southern US, Europe, and some of the smaller Caribbean islands.
It might be time to think about buying some stock in Oxitec, or its parent company, Intrexon Corporation**, which picked up the mosquito start up for a cool $160 million in the summer of 2015.
**These biotech guys are great at choosing horrifying and ominously cold names for their companies.