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Scientists Are Using Genetically Modified Mosquitoes to Fight the Mosquito-Borne Zika Virus

Trials show cuts in the wild mosquito population of as much as 90 percent.

Photo via Wikipedia (public domain)

As the Zika virus begins its spread in the United States, a British company is looking into genetically engineered mosquitoes to impede the outbreak.


NPR reports that Oxitec, a biotechnical insect control company, has developed a line of modified Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, the species that carries the Zika virus as well as dengue fever and chikungunya. The company has altered male Aedes aegypti mosquitoes so that when they mate, the females lay eggs that produce larvae that die before adulthood. Through this program, Oxitec has been able to cut the mosquito population by as much as 90 percent in Brazil and other countries over the past decade.

The virus was first detected in Brazil in May 2015 and has since spread to 22 more countries in South and Central America, prompting the CDC to issue a travel alert for people visiting the affected regions. Zika is transmitted through mosquito bites, but a few cases suggest it can also be sexually transmitted.

Zika causes fever-like symptoms and poses a threat especially to pregnant women—the infection has been linked to microcephaly, a birth defect in which infants are born with an abnormally small skull. The pathogen has also been linked to Guillain-Barré syndrome, a rare condition that can cause paralysis.

While Oxitec is waiting for FDA approval to begin conducting trials in the Florida Keys, the company reports an 82 percent cut in wild mosquito larvae in Piracicaba, a neighboring city of São Paulo, Brazil. Several years ago, Oxitec and Key West officials agreed to a similar program during a dengue outbreak.

There have been several confirmed cases of the Zika virus in New York, Florida, Texas, and California. All were found in U.S. residents returning overseas from Zika-affected countries.