Swatted: Science community debates mosquito extinction
June 3, 2016
The transition into summer comes with an increase in barbecues, picnics and long summer evenings.
But the rise in temperatures and outdoor activities also brings a rise in mosquitoes.
The pesky pest for people can also be problematic for cattle, as the irritation from a bite will throw off cattle's behavior.
There might be a solution, but it's not one the scientific community takes lightly.
Scientists from Imperial College London in the United Kingdom have found a way to eliminate mosquitoes through genetic modification. A team of researchers found a way to increase the chances of male mosquitoes birth. More males mean fewer children, so within generations, the mosquito could cease to exist.
"What is most promising about our results is that they are self-sustaining," said one of the lead researchers, Nikolai Windbichler in a news release. "Once modified mosquitoes are introduced, males will start to produce mainly sons, and their sons will do the same, so essentially the mosquitoes carry out the work for us."
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But the question that arises is: Just because science can eliminate a species, should it?
Part of the questions comes from unforeseen consequences to the ecosystem. Fish and amphibians, like frogs and tadpoles, eat mosquitoes, but it's unclear what effect mosquito extinction would have on these animals.
"To globally go and try to drive a mosquito or any other organism to extinction on a global basis, I would be very hesitant to try and do that," said Gary Brewer, professor and head of the entomology department at the University of Nebraska Lincoln. "Part of the questions stems from what a lack of mosquitoes buzzing around will do for the ecosystem."
But an elimination of mosquitoes could be a relief for cattle and owners.
The irritation from a bug bite can mean a loss of appetite and activity from cattle, as the bites will preoccupy the animals to the point where they will lose weight — neither of which are positives for producers.
Still, the question remains — do the benefits of eliminating mosquitoes outweigh the potential risks?
"With some of the new technologies, we need to be careful," Brewer said. "We don't know all of the consequences." Brewer said an alternative conversation could be more along the lines of only eliminating mosquitoes in certain areas or swarms known to carry diseases like Zika or Malaria.
That's where studies out of Oxitec — a company whose research started as Oxford University — come in. The scientists at Oxitec are studying ways to target specific groups of the mosquitoes, especially those with higher risk to carry diseases.
"There is currently no vaccine for Zika, so control of the mosquito and avoidance of bites are the best ways to combat the disease," according to the company's website.❖