Plans to release genetically modified mosquitoes in Key West, Fla., in an effort to combat the spread of tropical diseases isn't sitting well with some of the state's residents.
A mosquito species known as Aedes aegypti, which can spread the debilitating diseases dengue fever and chikungunya, has proven resistant to four of the six pesticides currently used to combat them, and there are fears the pests could move north from Key West into the Florida mainland.
A plan has been put forward to use genetically modified mosquitoes to halt their advance, but it first needs approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and, just as importantly, the public.
It is hoped genetically modified male mosquitoes would mate with wild females, resulting in larvae that die instead of hatch, eventually eradicating A. aegypti in Florida.
Not everyone is feeling happy about the plan.
"Anything modified kind of scares me," said Key West resident citizen Patrick Frink.
Phil Lounibos, a Florida entomologist, says that fear is widespread, whether justified or not.
"I think the science is fine, they definitely can kill mosquitoes, but the GMO issue still sticks as something of a thorny issue for the general public," he says.
A petition on change.org against the plan has received more than 130,000 signatures, but officials say they are running out of options to control the mosquitoes.
"The amount of dengue and chikungunya has been increasing every year," said Michael Doyle, the executive director of Florida Keys Mosquito Control.
Dengue infects more than 50 million people a year with muscle aches, while chikungunya can bring on on joint pain and painful contortions.
Chikungunya has been a scourge of countries in the Caribbean, leading the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to issue travel warnings in 2013 for Americans venturing there.
Climate change is driving the mosquitoes northward and has made the Florida Keys a vulnerable location, experts say.
The GMO mosquitoes have already had a trial run in the Cayman Islands, although the results were not as dramatic as had been hoped, officials said.
If the Florida plan is approved and goes ahead, it would mark the first time an insect with genetically modified DNA was released among a residential population.
Experts say fears about the plan are exaggerated, and the disease threat should be taken seriously.
"We alter things genetically from food to crops all the time," says Susan Paskewitz of the Medical Entomology Laboratory at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "Could there be unintended consequences? There could and there have been, but an outbreak of dengue fever would have a far more substantial effect on the Florida population."