Belfast Telegraph

Scientists not playing God by killing shape-shifting super mosquitoes

By Mike Gilson

The mosquito is completely useless and completely deadly. Now the wasp, compared to the bee, say, is also useless.

While the bee busies itself with making crucial links in the planet's chain of life, the wasp is effectively idling in the insect equivalent of the pool hall, a nuisance which contributes nothing to society.

But the mosquito is something altogether. It has no purpose on earth, except to spread death.

It isn't a crucial part of the food chain. It exists, in its trillions, for no purpose. I'm sure even a Buddhist would struggle to defend it.

Yellow fever, malaria and dengue are just some of the viruses it carries on its back.

This week, news emerged that scientists have discovered a new breed in Africa which could cause more misery.

Previously, mosquitoes only bit at night-time, allowing people to seek sanctuary under nets when the sun goes down. Now this new breed bites in the evening. It is another example of this creature's ability to keep shape-shifting to beat man's efforts to neuter its terrible effect.

Mosquitoes have even developed a liking for some of the anti-malarial drugs we take when we go abroad. A million people die every year from malaria caused by bites.

But there is hope - if we are prepared to back science over the natural order. It is a big ask.

Say hello to OX513A. He is a genetically modified mosquito and he has been developed by an English biotechnology company called Oxitec.

Far from being heralded as the potential saviour of millions, Oxitec is being accused of "playing God".

Here's what OX513A (let's call him Oxy for short) actually does. Oxy is a mutant, whose genetic structure has been altered.

Released into the wild, he will breed, but before his offspring can even fly, a fatal gene passed on by him will kill them.

As the breeding continues, more are destroyed. This way the Aedes aegypti mosquito could actually be wiped off the face of the earth and take dengue, which causes haemorrhaging and sometimes death, with it.

In Brazil, where the Aedes is rampant, experiments have begun, with impressive results.

A sample of eggs found shortly after Oxy was released in the city of Juazeiro found that 85% were genetically modified.

They were primed to self-destruct. But when a similar experiment was proposed in Key West, Florida, there was an outcry.

The federal government is sitting on permission. Nameless scientist with test tubes were playing God, without a clue about the end results, it was claimed.

There were echoes of 15 years ago, when genetically modified crops, Frankenstein foods, as they were known, brought howls of outrage from protestors in spite of claims that dust bowl areas of the world and their starving populations could benefit.

This science-versus-nature debate is stuck in a loop, like an endless black and white television repeat.

Sooner or later, we are going to have to have a proper debate. Meanwhile, the mosquito, a seeming perversion of nature, continues to evolve and breed and kill.


From Belfast Telegraph