Can it ever be wise to release genetically modified organisms into the natural environment? Perhaps. Sometimes. Sadly, that momentous question could be irrevocably twisted by an outing set to take place in the Florida Keys later this year.
The version is potentially the creation of precedents, and it probably shouldn’t be interpreted that way.
The plan, developed by biotech company Oxitec, is to release millions of male Aedes aegypti mosquitoes that have been genetically engineered so that their female offspring can only develop if exposed to the antibiotic tetracycline.
If all goes as planned, the released mosquitoes will mate with wild-type females, the female offspring will die, and – with fewer adult females to produce the next generation – the population of A. Aegypti will fall.
This would have a benefit for public health. In the Keys, A. aegypti is responsible for transmitting the virus that causes dengue fever, a disease that is sometimes serious and sometimes fatal. The species can also transmit Zika virus, chikungunya and yellow fever.
It is a technically intelligent proposition, and it is not without merit. No one wants these diseases – even though, despite an epidemic in 2020, the incidence of dengue fever in the Keys is not very high and the rest have yet to be found in the Keys.
The mosquito doesn’t look particularly interesting either. If the suckers were maintained over time and proceeded very well, it is conceivable that A. aegypti would be completely eliminated. But it was introduced to the Keys relatively recently and probably didn’t come there to play a vital ecological role, and the Keys are blessed with many other species of mosquitoes that are here to take its place. Since male mosquitoes do not bite, Oxitec releases would not be very troublesome.
Opponents of the plan point out that some female larvae survive the alteration of Oxitec, Oxitec’s calculations indicating otherwise. They also claim that these mosquitoes could pose a threat to both the people they bite and the environment.
It is true that the version could have been studied longer, more openly and more in depth. At the same time, the claim of a threat to quality you never know is common in debates about genetically modified organisms: perhaps it has not been totally ruled out that mosquitoes with the new ones. Oxitec’s genes pose particular risks to people or anything else. , but it is difficult to see what the risks would be. And the alternative is to spray an insecticide.
Nonetheless, the release remains highly controversial in the Keys, and it is in interactions with the public that the proposal is most disappointing. In a 2016 referendum in Monroe County, the county as a whole strongly endorsed the release, but Key West, where the release was supposed to have taken place, voted against it. Given the opposition and the novelty of using gene editing techniques to change the environment, the proposal warranted extensive and transparent public deliberation, and this did not happen.
In the 10 years since the proposal’s launch, there have been numerous opportunities for public participation – including the referendum, public hearings by the state, and a 30-day comment period hosted by the Environmental Protection Agency in 2019. In 2020, after the EPA gave its approval, Oxitec itself hosted a public webinar on the proposal (135 people attended, although a certain percentage were stakeholders or out-of-state academics), but the purpose of this event appears to have been simply to defend the proposal.
What is missing is a structured, balanced and impartial public deliberation that would encourage people to learn from the experts, share their thoughts and questions, and engage in a balanced discussion with citizens who do not share their views.
A proposal as new as the release of millions of genetically engineered mosquitoes is fraught with ambiguities and moral tensions: how should we think about the kinds of concerns you never know; are the risks and uncertainties of greater concern with genetic technologies? Do we really want to edit nature, or are we already sort of editors of nature all the time? Is editing nature by altering a genome fundamentally different from the nature of editing by, for example, insecticide spraying? What is nature, to think of it? Would authorizing the release of Oxitec imply that any proposed wild release of a genetically modified organism would have to be authorized?
The American chestnut was wiped out by a fungus accidentally imported from Asia, and it could be that giving the tree a gene derived from wheat would allow it to resist blight and let it thrive again. in the forests of the East.
And in sub-Saharan Africa, mosquitoes of the genus Anopheles are a link in the life cycle of the parasite responsible for malaria; eventually, a genetic alteration that at least temporarily suppressed populations of these mosquitoes could suppress or eliminate the parasite and save the lives of around half a million children per year.
These cases need to be covered by “could” and “maybe” both because the science is not fully developed and because they also depend on issues that require public deliberation. In fact, the issues should really be addressed not only locally – i.e. on the site of the proposed publication – and by the immediate stakeholders, but generally, across borders and perspectives.
We are all, in a way, stakeholders in the natural phenomena that we propose to modify thanks to genetic technologies. For these larger projects as well, Oxitec’s proposal is a disappointment.
Gregory E. Kaebnick, Ph.D., is a researcher at the Hastings Center and editor of the Hastings Center Report. He is a principal investigator on a Hastings project on gene editing in nature.