Key West is the target of an unprecedented test of GMO mosquitoes which will set the standard for regulation of genetically modified animals for generations to come. Concerned citizens of the Keys have been working for five years to demand safe science before they consent to participating in this experiment. So what are the key areas of concern?
Fragments can be cut and rearranged inside a DNA strand using a technology called CRISPR.
Bio-engineered animals are a new kind of life form that presents special risks.
The Oxitec OX513A genetically modified mosquito is an artificial life form, created in a laboratory out of protein sequences from several other species. Although some of the functions of these gene fragments have been worked out, the whole Oxitec DNA sequence is new, proprietary, and patented. It would be difficult or impossible to predict how nature will respond to the new genome, especially when it combines with the natural DNA of wild mosquitoes during mating.
If the Oxitec artificial DNA sequence “leaks out” into the mosquito population, it can have unforeseen consequences as nature either favors or forces out particular characteristics of the new species. The offspring of GMO and wild mosquitoes could be better carriers of disease than the original mosquitoes. Or they might be so crippled that another species of local mosquito rises up to take advantage of the lack of competition, one that could be more difficult to combat with pesticides.
The GMO mosquito strategy sets up a competition between natural and GMO mosquitoes in the hopes that the engineered species will overtake the wild one and eventually reduce the population of both versions. But getting there requires the constant release of large amounts of mosquitoes, many times the amount found in nature. The huge quantities and repeated releases of GMO mosquitoes provide more chances for Oxitec’s DNA to leak into the environment.
Biting females are released along with large quantities of males.
Oxitec has made a considerable effort to downplay the number of female mosquitoes which are necessarily released along with the males for whom the program is intended. This is alarming for two reasons. Not only do female mosquitoes pose a nuisance and a health risk by biting an average of two people before they die, they are also the first way that Oxitec’s artificial DNA can leak out into the environment. A university study in Japan found that GMO mosquitoes’ artificial DNA was present in the saliva injected into animals when the insects bite. The study used the same genetic marker as the Oxitec mosquito.
The official FDA Report on the Oxitec GMO mosquito which provides the basis for the Key West test states that, in the small neighborhood of Key Haven alone, an average of 62 biting females would have to be released per person around area homes. Humans bitten by the released females can contract diseases, including Zika or dengue fever. Oxitec has failed to show that GMO mosquitoes have any capacity to reduce disease transmission.
Witnesses and residents in Brazil, the only country so far to allow a large scale deployment of the Oxitec mosquito, say that the air there is thick with clouds of mosquitoes. In the small Key Haven neighborhood alone, about 14 million male mosquitoes would need to be released from backyard containers among area residences. A GMO mosquito program in the Florida Keys would not only be a nuisance for our residents but also a strong deterrent to tourism when visitors are faced with clouds of mosquitoes. The treated areas in Brazil are not tourism destinations. They are economically underdeveloped jungle towns and not comparable environments to the Florida Keys.
Oxitec scientist Derric Nimmo, co-developer of the OX513A GMO mosquito, photographing one.
GMO mosquitoes are comprised of 6 different species, including bacteria and viruses.
Although the movie Jurassic Park was fiction, the book it is based on was written as a warning by author Michael Crichton. In it, the park used dinosaur eggs along with parts of reptile DNA, a flower, and some “leftover bits to fill in the missing parts.” The dino scientists assured guests that the engineered animals were safe, sterile, and couldn’t get out.
In a case of life imitating fiction, Oxitec has used exactly this approach with the OX513A. It’s comprised of two strains of Aedes aegypti mosquito, neither of which is from the Florida Keys. Varying local strains of mosquitoes react differently to pesticides and differing levels of disease transmission. To the crossbred DNA, Oxitec added DNA fragments from fruit flies, a cabbage moth, and a sea coral. The used E. coli bacteria to help perform the DNA shredding transformations. A long string of “leftover bits” is still present, too. Most importantly, a sequence from Herpes simplex virus was added to provide the “lethality” function in the offspring of GMO and wild mosquitoes.
Like the wide-eyed visitors to Jurassic Park, the citizens of Key West are being told that Oxitec’s GMO mosquito can’t reproduce and can’t escape into the wild. It should be apparent that company wants to downplay these risks because they are difficult to forecast and impossible to stop. No one is suggesting that monstrous Frankenskeeters will take over the world, but the lesson from the film is a valuable one: There is simply no way for humans to predict or control how nature responds when multiple species of foreign DNA are allowed to replicate in the wild. Oxitec’s artificial DNA sequence can have unintended and unforeseen consequences on the environment, other animals in the food chain, and on people.
The Oxitec mosquito can survive and replicate in large quantities when it finds tetracycline.
In order to rear large quantities of GMO mosquitoes, Oxitec uses tetracycline antibiotic to suppress the “lethal” gene. The company discovered that, if the mosquitoes discover tetracycline in the environment, they can also shut off the lethal gene outside the lab, allowing them to reproduce and spread their foreign DNA. Oxitec’s internal, confidential memo showed that, with access to tetracycline, up to 15% of the engineered mosquitoes can survive to adulthood and mate. This is, without a doubt, the largest potential hole in Oxitec’s leaky DNA system. Tetracycline is found many human and pet environments, including popular cat and dog foods, aquarium medicines, hospital waste, and sewer treatment plants.
Raising the GMO mosquito to require tetracycline will naturally cause those mosquitoes which find it to have a better chance of survival. Over time, these tetracycline-seeking mosquitoes could develop into a strain which overtakes the original wild type. Even without tetracycline, the lethal gene fails in about 5% of the GMO mosquitoes due to uncertainties in the gene shredding technique.
Both types of “leaky” mosquitoes will mate and their offspring will have DNA whose effects cannot be predicted. To make matters worse, rearing mosquitoes in tetracycline water provides a vector for carrying tetracycline-resistant bacteria, since these would be the bacteria which are able to survive the rearing process. A number of Keys physicians have signed a petition expressing their concerns about the spread of resistant bacteria and how this might affect human medicine.
Key Haven citizens, targeted for the release of 14 million GMO mosquitoes, were not consulted.
Oxitec’s business process lacks transparency and honesty.
Citizens for Safe Science believes in the responsible use of science and technology to protect our health and our environment, but Oxitec’s business practices have caused the people of Florida Keys to question the company’s integrity.
Oxitec has been discovered making secret agreements with elected officials to build a commercial lab inside a public building. Through their public relations firm, they’ve created a misleading “citizen’s group” which is staffed by employees from Craigslist. And they’ve hired a service to robocall Keys citizens in an attempt to influence the November election — with a survey that doesn’t allow “NO” answers.
The company refuses to allow outside scientists or doctors to test its products. It has neglected to describe what criteria would be determine the success or failure of the test. It will not answer questions about costs. Oxitec has not demonstrated that the GMO mosquito product is safe for human health or effective at reducing disease transmission. And no studies have been done to see what effects the GMO DNA will have on mosquito populations after the program is terminated.
Of utmost importance, however, are the company’s repeated failures to obtain the consent of its human subjects. According to the WHO Guidance Framework for Genetically Modified Mosquitoes, the citizens of Key West are “human test subjects” and have the right to be informed about all of the risks of the experiment before deciding whether we will give consent. If a majority of the citizens of the Florida Keys do not want GMO mosquitoes, as we believe they do not, they have the right to exercise that right through voting in the November 8th referendum.
Oxitec and the Florida Keys Mosquito District should honor the citizens’ referendum and withdraw any further attempt to test or raise GMO mosquitoes in the Florida Keys if the people of Key West do not consent to the experiment.