Mosquitoes that have been genetically engineered to produce non-viable offspring were released today in Panama in an attempt to tackle the country’s growing dengue fever problem.
Dengue fever is a severe flu-like disease that can sometimes be fatal. It is spread by Aedes aegypti, a type of mosquito that is found in tropical and subtropical regions throughout the world.
The disease is only spread by female mosquitoes, so scientists at Oxitec genetically engineered mosquitoes to carry a lethal gene that would kill the offspring of any female that they mate with.
By releasing these genetically engineered mosquitoes into Panama, it is hoped that the disease-carrying insects will be wiped out, resulting in fewer cases of dengue fever.
Serious concerns have been raised over the disease as it is increasing rapidly on a global scale, helped in part climate change. The World Health Organisation estimates there to be 50-100 million cases each year.
Panama in particular has seen a marked increase in incidences of the disease. In 2012 there were 1,000 reported cases, but by 2013 this had risen to 3,000.
“Dengue fever is a major concern in Panama,” explained Panamanian health organisation the Gorgas Institute director Dr Nestor Sosa.
“The methods we have for controlling the dengue mosquito are limited and are increasingly of limited effectiveness: dengue cases in this country tripled between 2012 and 2013.”
There are also fears that climate change could result in the disease could spread to areas previously unaffected as climate change increases rainfall and temperatures.
In April UK-based biologist Dr Steve Lindsay warned that diseases spread by insects were on the rise in Mediterranean Europe, and could spread further north.
Genetic engineering is increasingly being seen as an environmentally friendly way to tackle insects that are a threat to human life and health.
Oxitec, the company behind the engineered mosquitoes, is a specialist in this field, having previously provided similar insects to tackle the issue in Brazil and the Cayman Islands. The company is also investigating the technology to protect crops from insect pests.
The technology is, however, still relatively new and many health institutes will be watching carefully to see if it can be deployed on a large scale.
“Oxitec’s technology has shown great promise in Brazil and the Cayman Islands; it’s efficient, effective, and can reduce reliance on pesticides,” added Sosa.
“Assuming we can show it to be equally effective here, we could be looking at an important new addition to our existing approaches for controlling the dengue mosquito – and that would be very good news for the people of Panama”.
Featured image courtesy of M via Flickr/Creative Commons.
Inline image and video courtesy of Oxitec.