This week, mosquito eggs placed in the Florida Keys are expected to hatch tens of thousands of genetically modified mosquitoes, a result of the first U.S. release of such insects in the wild. A biotechnology firm called Oxitec delivered the eggs in late April as part of a federally approved experiment to study the use of genetic engineering—rather than insecticides—to control disease-carrying mosquito populations. The move targets an invasive species, called Aedes aegypti, that carries Zika, dengue, chikungunya, yellow fever and other potentially deadly diseases, some of which are on the rise in Florida.
The experiment relies on a genetic alteration that will be lethal to a large number of future offspring. In this case, male mosquitoes have been modified to carry a gene that makes their female progeny dependent on the antibiotic tetracycline—and thus fated to die in the wild. As the mating cycle repeats over generations, female numbers are depleted, and the population is suppressed. The modified insects eventually die off, making this approach self-limiting.
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