Jan 30, 2016 I Paul Seaburn

The Zika Virus and the Controversial GMO Mosquitoes

There’s currently no known vaccine to kill the deadly Zika virus so health and government officials are looking for ways to control the mosquitoes that spread it. This problem is bigger than citronella candles and bug spray and there’s a shortage of mosquito nets. That’s why there’s talk of using genetically modified mosquitoes to stop their breeding cycle. The concept is controversial and there’s concern that GMO mosquitoes might actually contribute to the spread of the disease in the future.

The biotech firm Oxitec has created a genetically modified breed of the Zika-spreading Aedes aegypti mosquito. The GMO mosquito (OX513A) carries a gene that causes offspring to die before they reach reproductive age. Oxitec has tested OX513A in Brazil, Panama and the Cayman Islands and claims a 90 percent drop in mosquito populations – not perfect but close.

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A genetically modified mosquito pupae emerging

Oxitec did a controlled test in Piracicaba, Brazil, which cut the mosquito population by 82% in a few months, prompting the city to contract with Oxitec and allow it to build a mosquito-making factory there.

There’s just one mosquito fly in the GMO ointment. The offspring die before maturity because they develop serious birth defects (irony alert – babies of mothers with the virus are also born with the rare birth defect microencephaly). Oxitec used the same GMO mosquitoes last year in areas of Brazil to control the spread of dengue fever - the same general areas where the birth defects caused by the Zika virus in Brazil are now concentrated.

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Map showing the concentration of suspected Zika-related cases of microcephaly in Brazil.

Coincidence? Reports show that 3-4% of the offspring of GMO mosquitoes don’t die prematurely and instead survive to adulthood where they can reproduce and potentially pass their survivalist genes caused by the modifications to their offspring. Those offspring already in Brazil can potentially mate with the new Zika GMO mosquitoes and possibly spawn generations of adults that can continue to spread Zika.

Everyone agrees that things must be done about the spread of the Zika virus. This is an attempt to prevent birth defects in humans by creating birth defects in mosquitoes that are not 100% effective and could create survivalist offspring in the future … or may have created them already. Genetic modification is always controversial. There may be other solutions. The disease could dissipate suddenly like Ebola. No one knows for sure. Let’s hope cooler heads prevail before panic sets in.

Paul Seaburn

Paul Seaburn is the editor at Mysterious Universe and its most prolific writer. He’s written for TV shows such as "The Tonight Show", "Politically Incorrect" and an award-winning children’s program. He's been published in “The New York Times" and "Huffington Post” and has co-authored numerous collections of trivia, puzzles and humor. His “What in the World!” podcast is a fun look at the latest weird and paranormal news, strange sports stories and odd trivia. Paul likes to add a bit of humor to each MU post he crafts. After all, the mysterious doesn't always have to be serious.

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