Mosquitoes aren't just a pesky nuisance causing Floridians to claw at swollen welts on their limbs; they can also transmit deadly disease. Back in 2009, the Florida Keys suffered an outbreak of Dengue Fever, a fatal condition with flu-like symptoms, the first there since 1934.
Now a British biotech company Oxitec thinks they have the solution to avoiding future outbreaks: genetically modified mosquitoes. Their mutant skeeters not only glow red when placed under a microscope, they also carry a gene that causes new offspring to self-destruct.
Many Key Westers are alarmed that a British biotech company wants to use their backyard for a genetic experiment. Resident Mila de Mier went as far as setting up an online change.org petition in April, which now has over 100,000 signatures of support.
"Nearly all experiments with genetically-modified crops have eventually resulted in unintended consequences…Why would we not expect GM (genetically modified) insects, especially those that bite humans, to have similar unintended negative consequences? Will the more virulent Asian tiger mosquito that also carries dengue fill the void left by reductions in A. aegypti? Will the dengue virus mutate (think antibiotic resistant MRSA) and become even more dangerous?"
In order to avoid a repeat of the 2009 outbreak, which lasted for 15 months and made 93 people sick, the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District spends upwards of a million dollars to blanket the chain of islands with pesticides.
As a Broward New Times cover story pointed out, Floridians may take current mosquito control measures for granted. In the days before the state's extensive mosquito control programs, skeeter swarms in some areas were so dense "it was impossible to breathe without inhaling mouthfuls of mosquitoes."
This isn't the first time genetic engineering could be used to combat Dengue Fever. In 2010, Oxitec released 3 million mutant male mosquitoes into the Cayman Islands and report that within a year, the local population was cut by 80 percent.
If the Food and Drug Administration approves their "animal bug patent," Oxitec will likewise release upwards of 10,000 GM mosquitoes at an undisclosed 36-square-acre block near the Key West Cemetery.
Oxitec admits their system isn't foolproof. About one female is accidentally released for every 1,500 male mosquitoes, according to New Times, and it's the females that bite and suck blood.
In April, the Florida Keys Environmental Coalition wrote to Gov. Rick Scott, asking him to stop Oxitec, pointing to the unknown consequences of being bit by one these rogue GM female mosquitos: "… biting female mosquitoes could inject an engineered protein into humans along with other proteins from the mosquitos’ salivary gland. Oxitec has yet to conduct or publish any study showing that this protein is not expressed in the salivary gland and therefore cannot be passed on to humans."
As there haven't been any reported cases of Dengue Fever in the Keys since 2009, residents are calling for more research to be done before introducing a brand new species into the local environment.
"We need more data. If something goes wrong the consequences could be catastrophic not only for humans but also the whole ecosystem, and I don't want my family being used as laboratory rats for this," de Mier told the Guardian.