GM mosquitoes in Malaysia?

It's bad enough that the US is contemplating GM salmon and now Malaysia has jumped on the frankenscience bandwagon and thinking about a field trial for GM mosquitoes. In order to tackle dengue fever 2000-3000 male Aedes aegypti mosquitoes would be released in two Malaysian states in October or November.

These insects have been engineered so that their offspring die quickly thereby curbing the growth of the population. By the principle of out-competition researchers hope that the dengue mosquito could be eradicated altogether. The talk of GM mosquitoes has been in the news for about five years now and after several lab trials, this will be the first field trial in Malaysia.

Both malaria and dengue are diseases that affect many millions of people every year and therefore they both need to be eradicated. Dengue affects up to 50 millions people per year according to WHO. However many environmentalists and malaria scientists aren't even sure that GM mosquitoes are the answer.

According to Gurmit Singh, head of the Centre for Environment, Technology and Development, "once you release these GM mosquitoes into the environment, you have no control and it can create more problems than solving them." He elaborated by saying that the larvae will only die if their environment is free of tetracycline. This is an antibiotic which is commonly used for medical and veterinary purposes. If the larvae come in contact with this antibiotic, the chances of them surviving will be higher. As with any other GMO, the affect on non-target species is yet unknown and there is always the risk to biodiversity.

Researchers in the University of Edinburgh have recently identified a gene that allows the plasmodium to develop resistance to a leading drug. This has promises for a breakthrough drug in the treatment of malaria. British biotech company Oxitech is responsible for the development of GM mosquitos. According to them the mosquitoes proposed for release contain "a fluorescent molecular marker and a self-limiting construct." The same company is also responsible for the anti-malaria GM mosquito which was approved for evaluation in India last year. At this time Dr. Vasan, one of the scientists at Oxitech said that, “the goal is not to completely eradicate dengue or chikungunya. That is not possible. It is to bring it below the threshold of disease transmission through GM sterile mosquitoes."

In dabbling with such risky technology, caution is of utmost importance and it should not be considered if the results promise anything less than complete eradication. GM technology continues to be an uncertain endeavour because field trials can never predict down-the line effects. One of the leading causes of honey bee colony collapse has been attributed to GM crops - nobody predicted this whilst trials were going on. Who can predict the ecological issues associated with the release of GM mosquitoes?