I came across an article from the website FiveThrityEight about a study today that seemed potentially groundbreaking in the fight against Zika. A company, Oxitec, has developed a way they believe can control the population of the dangerous and pesticide resistant aedes aegypti that carry Zika in the United States and elsewhere. They’ve genetically modified these mosquitos so that any offspring they have will die before they mature and thus cause the population to fall dramatically if not go extinct. If they were to release these genetically modified mosquitos into the wild, in theory, they would breed with the existing ones and all the offspring would die before they were old enough to bite humans and transmit any diseases.
Oxitec has proposed a controlled experiment in a small neighborhood of the
Florida Keys to field test their theory. They will release the GM mosquitos into one area, designate another area as the control area, and ensure to keep a buffer zone to separate the two (these mosquitos don’t fly far from home in their lives). They will then measure the aedes aegypti levels in each area and see whether or not it worked.
Their null hypothesis is that the GM mosquitos will not affect the aedes aegypti populations while their potentially massively important alternative hypothesis is that imposing these GM mosquitos will dramatically reduce the population of mosquitos that could transmit disease to humans.
Sounds awesome, right? Wrong, according to some.
There’s a strong protest movement going on in that area against the introduction of the mosquitos simply because they’re genetically modified. It’s similar in nature to those who oppose genetically modified crops or livestock. I know there are plentiful upsides to genetically modified organisms, but I’ve never looked closely at any possible downsides to this practice. So, I sought out some peer reviewed scientific studies to see if they should change my attitude about eating (and releasing them into the wild to fight Zika) GMO’s.
The first and most compelling study I found was done by Alison Van Eenennaam and her team out of University of California- Davis. She looked decades of feeding patterns for livestock that ate GMO feed and non-GMO feed and found no considerable distinction between the health of the animals. This study was so large that it consisted of animals numbering in the twelve figures.
The pure size of that study was quite compelling to me, but I wanted to find another credible study that corroborated those results. Unfortunately, as I waded through pages and pages of search results that were just shady websites with clear political agendas either for or against GMO’s, I was unable to find another credible study,
I did, however, find an article from the Genetic Literacy Project where they looked at ten studies anti-GMO activists regularly cite as evidence of problems with genetically modified organisms and it showed major flaws with all of them. From the fact that some were not peer reviewed to some studies lab studies that used far too small sample sizes and rats prone to health problems to lacks of controls, it showed that much of the anti-GMO research is bunk science.
So, as best as I can find, there is no problem with genetically modified organisms that would warrant people changing their behavior to avoid them. Therefore, the concerns of the folks opposed to the experiment with the GMO mosquitos don’t seem to have legitimate claims.