EPA approves genetically-modified mosquitoes

The company MosquitoMate has been granted permission to release bacteria-infected mosquitoes into the wild as a way to fight disease.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has given MosquitoMate permission to use male mosquitoes infected with the bacteria Wolbachia pipientis to keep Asian tiger mosquito populations in check.

The agency first gave approval to the biotech company last Friday to release mosquitoes into the environment.

For the process, researchers first infect male mosquitoes — which do bit humans — with the bacteria. Then, when those males mate with wild female mosquitoes, the fertilized eggs to not hatch.

“It’s a non-chemical way of dealing with mosquitoes, so from that perspective, you’d think it would have a lot of appeal,” said David O’Brochta, an entomologist at the University of Maryland, according to Newsweek. “I’m glad to see it pushed forward, as I think it could be potentially really important.”

The new approval last five years and will go into effect for Washington, D.C., California, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Maine, Maryland, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Nevada, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Vermont, and West Virginia.

Scientists hope that, as more bacteria-infected males are released into the wild, the population of Asian tiger mosquitoes will decrease. Other insects and species of mosquitoes will not be harmed.

If the new method proves to be successful at fighting populations, there is a chance the company could begin to sell bacteria-infected mosquitoes next summer to both homeowners and larger municipalities. However, in order to do that, MosquitoMate would need to register in each individual state where the bugs are used.

This is the first time genetically modified mosquitoes will be distributed over such a large area. However, MosquitoMate has already tested the process on a different species of mosquito — known as Aedes aegypti — in the both the Florida Keys and Fresno, California. 

This technology is important because, if it proves to be successful on widespread levels, it could be a big step toward preventing mosquito-borne diseases across the world. The newest product targets insects that can spread a many different illnesses, including Zika, yellow fever, chikungunya, and dengue. While those issues are not prevalent in America, diseases like dengue affect 96 million people across the world.

“Over a very short period of time, the Wolbachia was able to invade the wild mosquito population until close to 100 percent of all mosquitoes had the Wolbachia infection — and so we presume, greatly reduced ability to transmit dengue between people,” Australian researcher Scott O’Neill told NPR.

These findings come from a report in the journal Nature.

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