• Reading Level 5
Science | Design & Technology | Citizenship | RE | Relationships and health

Mutant bugs released to fight disease

Is it wrong to release modified mosquitoes into the wild? Supporters say genetically altered insects could eradicate deadly diseases, but opponents are warning of dangerous consequences. Tropical diseases carried by mosquitoes kill a million people every year. So, it may seem strange that a laboratory wants to release 750 million of these insects into the skies of Florida, in the United States. But these are no ordinary bugs. They have been genetically programmed to destroy their own species. This is the latest move in the fight against mosquito-borne diseases like malaria, dengue, and yellow fever. Half the world lives with the risk of infection and billions of dollars are spent every year on new drugs, pesticides, and public health measures. But the drugs are losing their potency and the mosquitoes are growing resistant to the pesticides. Synthetic biology may offer the knock-out blow. This branch of genetic engineering allows scientists to edit the mosquito’s DNA and introduce a “self-limiting” gene. This artificial DNA sequence kills the biting females whilst leaving the modified males to spread the auto-destruct gene through the wild population. Authorities have approved the scheme in Florida but environmental groups are furious, calling it a “Jurassic Park experiment” that will unleash a “mutant bug” into the ecosystem. Many argue that the modified mosquito may have unforeseen consequences, and an online petition against the plan already has 240,000 signatures. Genetic modification is not new. Humans have selectively bred animals for their own advantage for thousands of years, creating friendlier pets and fatter farm animals. However, recent advances in science allow bioengineers to make precise changes to an animal’s DNA. This gene-editing has created some curious new beasts: goats that make spider silk in their milk; cats that glow in the dark; fast-growing salmon, and pigs that can digest pollutants. Critics call them Frankenstein monsters and want them banned. But supporters believe they will make the world a better place. But are GM mosquitoes safe? Many are concerned that releasing them into the wild will open a Pandora’s box, unleashing forces that cannot be controlled. An earlier trial in Brazil raised fears that a hybrid mosquito had been created that could survive the “lethal gene”. Others are concerned that eliminating one species will alter the food chain, affecting those animals that eat insects. To protect against this scenario, bioengineers have built kill switches into some of their creations. This mosquito contains a fluorescent gene, making it easier to identify. So, is it wrong to release genetically modified mosquitoes into the wild? Playing god Yes, this is a dangerous experiment with too many unforeseen consequences. Nature is a complex, interconnected system where small changes can have major negative effects. In the laboratory, GM animals can be controlled and contained. But, in the wild, they will be beyond our control. And by the time we realise we have created a monster, the damage will be irreversible. No, people’s fears are based on science fiction and disaster movies not hard evidence. In reality, scientists are conducting a controlled experiment on an insect we have already failed to eradicate by pesticides and public health measures. There is no evidence it will harm other species – but it will save thousands of lives lost every year to dengue and yellow fever. KeywordsDengue - A debilitating viral disease transmitted by mosquitoes.

Continue Reading

The Day is an independent, online, subscription-based news publication for schools, focusing on the big global issues beneath the headlines. Our dedicated newsroom writes news, features, polls, quizzes, translations… activities to bring the wider world into the classroom. Through the news we help children and teachers develop the thinking, speaking and writing skills to build a better world. Our stories are a proven cross-curricular resource published at five different reading levels for ages 5 to 19. The Day has a loyal and growing membership in over 70 countries and its effectiveness is supported by case studies and teacher endorsements.

Start your free trial Already have an account? Log in / register