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Scientists genetically engineer mosquitoes

5:40 PM, Oct 31, 2011   |    comments
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St. Petersburg, Florida - So it's not exactly Frankenstein, but scientists working for the British company Oxitec are creating a new kind of life form in their labs-a genetically altered mosquito.

While Oxitec does grow the little monsters, the company's end goal is to try and reduce their numbers. Oxitec creates strains that are sterile.

"Effectively, it's birth control for insects," says Oxitec's CEO Hadyn Parry in a video on the company's website.

Right now Oxitec is targeting the Aedes aegypti species; it's the kind that spreads yellow and dengue fevers. So far several tests have been conducted on Grand Cayman Island.

Here's how it works: Sterile males are released and they mate with wild females, but no offspring is produced, so population numbers decline.

Mark Latham of Manatee County Mosquito Control says the technique is promising, but it has limitations too.

"You've got to have far more of the sterile males than the wild males, in order to achieve anything," says Latham. "That's one of the big logistical problems with this sort of technique."

So could these altered mosquitoes be used here in Florida? Officials at the mosquito control in Key West are very interested, because in recent years they have had outbreaks of dengue fever. They are now pursuing permission from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to conduct a test with Oxitec.

However, Latham doubts the technique would work in the Tampa Bay area, because it's not an isolated island like Grand Cayman or Key West.

"Very difficult, because you're talking about a large area that's very contiguous," he says.

And just like the Frankenstein movies, there are always concerns about messing with Mother Nature. However, with mosquito-borne diseases posing a threat around the world, it's possible that high-tech mosquitoes can help save lives. 

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