After years of public and regulatory resistance in the US, first batch of mosquitoes genetically engineered to end Zika, dengue and other transmittable diseases are released

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Oxitec has placed boxes of its mosquito eggs in undisclosed locations in the Florida Keys to protect against vandalism. Credit: Oxitec
Oxitec has placed boxes of its mosquito eggs in undisclosed locations in the Florida Keys to protect against vandalism. Credit: Oxitec

After a decade of fighting for regulatory approval and public acceptance, a biotechnology firm has released genetically engineered mosquitoes into the open air in the United States for the first time. The experiment, launched this week in the Florida Keys — over the objections of some local critics — tests a method for suppressing populations of wild Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, which can carry diseases such as Zika, dengue, chikungunya and yellow fever.

Oxitec, the firm based in Abingdon, UK, that developed the mosquitoes, has previously field-tested the insects in Brazil, Panama, the Cayman Islands and Malaysia.

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But until now, owing to a circuitous series of regulatory decisions and pushback from Florida residents (see ‘A long road’), no genetically engineered mosquito had been trialled in the United States — even though the country previously allowed tests of a genetically engineered diamondback moth (Plutella xylostella) in New York and an engineered pink bollworm (Pectinophora gossypiella) in Arizona, both developed by Oxitec. “When something new and revolutionary comes along, the immediate reaction of a lot of people is to say: ‘Wait.’,” says Anthony James, a molecular biologist focused on bioengineered mosquitoes at the University of California, Irvine. “So the fact that [Oxitec] was able to get the trial on the ground in the United States is a big deal.”

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