The mosquito-bite fight begins

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Anyone who thought February’s freeze would kill all the mosquitos is biting up the wrong leg. They are back and, seemingly so, with a vengeance (did surviving just make them stronger, one wonders?).

In Florida this week, an interesting and controversial fight against the bite begins after more than a decade of getting there. The company Oxitec will be releasing 144,000 Genetically Modified Mosquitoes in the Florida Keys designed to fight the mosquito population. NBC News has a quick report on this here.

How does this work?

Did you ever take the antibiotic tetracycline? I took it to fight acne as a kid but it treats lots of other bacterial infections.

Oxitec has engineered all their mosquitoes with a gene that makes only the females depend on tetracycline. Without it, the females die and it’s the females that bite. So all the eggs from the engineered mosquitoes will be shipped to Florida and when they hatch, the engineered female mosquitoes won’t have any tetracycline and they are toast.

The engineered males carry the gene and when they mate with the females out in the wild the female offspring will need tetracycline to live, but, again, will die. The male offspring will have the gene and repeat the cycle. In other words, the new natural mosquitoes will all have this new gene, the females will need tetracycline to survive which they won’t get, the males don’t need any tetracycline so they just keep the new gene going. Eventually, the mosquito population dwindles.

Of course, not everyone is biting into the plan and that’s why it has taken Oxitec so long to actually get the program going in America, although they have claimed success in Brazil and the Caymans. Residents in the Florida Keys have questioned the safety, the necessity and the long-term effects of the program (what happens to all that tetracycline in the water, for instance).

However, the state of Florida has decided the threats of dengue fever and Zika virus outweigh any inherent risks, and the program begins this week. I found an in-depth piece on all of this fascinating, and you can check it out here from Undark.org.

Could this pilot program come to Houston? It sure could. The EPA has approved the plan and Click2Houston.com had an article on this just last August. So far, the answer is no.

With the mosquitoes already rallying in full force, I suspect we’ll be watching the Florida Keys experiment pretty closely.

Frank

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About the Author:

KPRC 2's chief meteorologist with three decades of experience forecasting Houston's weather.