Genetically modified mosquitoes may soon be employed in the fight against the deadly Zika virus, if the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approves the release of these minuscule warriors. These unwitting living weapons in the battle against Zika are members of the same species responsible for spreading the disease.
Aedes aegypti mosquitoes normally carry the virus, but a biotechnology company specializing in insect control has created a new form of the insect designed to destroy its own population. The genetically altered mosquito is programmed to die before reaching adulthood. Only male insects are to be used, as they do not bite, preventing any threat to human populations. Altered males breed with wild females, spreading their genetic modification onto their young, which die before they can reproduce.
The genetic modifications designed into the newly developed insects do not produce poison but instead interfere in the life processes of the Zika virus.
"Because no toxic proteins are produced in the insects, when any other animals eat them they will be digested in just the same way that all other insects are digested, so natural predators won't suffer any harmful effects from consumption of a modified insect," the Oxitec press office explained.
The genetically altered insects are kept alive in the laboratory through the consumption of a specific chemical added to their diet. This allows the winged creatures to survive long enough to be released into the wild.
"Trials in Brazil, Panama and the Cayman Islands have demonstrated that Oxitec's technology produces an unparalleled reduction in the population of the dangerous Aedes aegypti mosquito," Oxitec officials wrote in a press release.
Releasing the genetically altered mosquitoes into normal populations reduces stocks by around 90 percent under laboratory conditions. Only 2 to 3 percent of larvae reach adulthood, but these individuals are sickly, perishing soon after their transformation. However, even these meager survival rates were observed under controlled situations, providing optimal conditions for the insects. In the wild, with its harsh natural environment, few of the insects are likely to survive the onslaught.
So far, Zika has infected people living in 39 countries around Latin America and the Caribbean. Puerto Rico has seen over 800 people become infected with the deadly disease. The United States may soon see its first victims of Zika, a virus that can result in severe birth defects when infecting pregnant women.