Biotechnology, which a recent study showed is easing pressure on marginal land, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and lowering food prices, is stepping up again to help humanity. This time biotech mosquitoes are helping the world fight the devastating Zika virus.
The virus, which has been linked to birth defects and other diseases, has grown explosively over the past several months in Latin America and the Caribbean and has also been detected in the United States. Like a lot of diseases, Zika is spread by mosquitoes. In this case, a mosquito species called Aedes aegypti, which also carries malaria, dengue fever and a range of other nasty diseases.
Computer billionaire Bill Gates, whose foundation leads the fight against diseases worldwide, was quoted as saying that no other animal on earth comes close to killing humans as Aedes aegypti.
One of the most promising ways to control the mosquito, and slow the spread of the diseases it carries, is through biotech.
A British company called Oxitec has developed a mosquito with a gene that causes the next generation to die before they can breed. In the company’s program, genetically-altered male insects, the ones that don’t bite humans, are released to mate with females in the wild, knocking out new generations. Tests have shown the Oxitec program can drastically reduce targeted mosquito populations.
Along with reducing the number of disease carriers, the biotech mosquito control is better for the environment because it reduces the need for spraying strong insecticides, which tend to harm bees and other beneficial critters along with the targeted mosquitoes.
A recent survey of people in the United States showed that nearly 80 percent favored use of biotech mosquitoes to control Zika. Those results surprised researchers at Purdue, which conducted the online survey. "We can certainly say that what we’ve discovered is startling, and we’re pleased that the U.S. public has demonstrated a willingness to be open to all the tools we’ve got in fighting this outbreak," said Wallace Tyner, one of the researchers on the project.
Biotech opponents love to warn about the dangers of the science or infer, erroneously, that biotech crops and insects have not been properly tested.
But that message just may not have the bite that it once did.