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Do Not Fear the Drones Air-Dropping 50,000 Mosquitoes From Above

In the name of science and disease prevention, a team of scientists and engineers has been using drones to drop tens of thousands of lab-designed mosquitoes in Brazil, in an attempt to drive down populations of Aedes aegypti, which carries Zika, dengue and yellow fever. The team plans to have 30 drone-dispensing mosquito stations around the world by 2020.

If it sounds like a scary movie, there’s nothing to fear, the scientists assured Smithsonian: The mosquitoes are sterile, so they can’t reproduce when they mate — which is the whole point. Tinkering around with mosquito DNA may also help in the future, particularly with malaria-causing Anopheles mosquitoes, they said.

If there ever were a case for caution when it comes to a lab experiment, it probably is when the headline reads, “do not fear,” with scientists assuring readers nothing possibly could go wrong with their genetic tinkering. For one thing, when it comes to experimental “disease-fighting” mosquitoes, it’s already been proven there really is no failsafe, as there is no going back once the mosquitoes are released.

As we've seen in the past with genetically engineering, when you tinker with nature, it often comes back to bite you. You need look no further than the surprises scientists have already run into with something called CRISPR gene editing, in which they not only discovered unexpected mutations in the DNA, but that cells whose genomes are successfully edited by CRISPR-Cas9 have carcinogenic potential that can create cancerous tumors.

With mosquitoes, there are several glaring problems with assuming these GE mosquitoes are safe for the human populations. For starters:

  • To quote a line from the popular movie, “Jurassic Park,” life finds a way. Just as the CRISPR scientists already found, the potential exists for the gene-edited mosquitoes to mutate and maybe even find a way around man’s tinkering with nature’s plan — and perhaps come back more powerful than ever. Meaning, who’s to say they won’t eventually find a way to procreate, anyway?
  • Even more questionable is whether it’s even wise to eradicate pests by using gene drive technology that more or less assures extinction of the entire species? The point is mosquitoes are not researchers’ only targeted insect. As a matter of fact, they’re already dropping moths in parts of New York.
  • With gene-driven technology, the gene could cause mosquitoes in the wild to become extinct, fast. So, who’s to say where it will end: How many species will scientists target for elimination before they’re done — and what will happen to Earth’s natural ecosystem if they are successful, all in the name of disease prevention?

The point is gene-driven technology is incredibly controversial because it gives scientists the ability to control and potentially quickly eradicate entire populations of species. But there’s no certainty to what happens with those gene-edited populations once they’re released because, it’s true, life finds a way. The bottom line is the risk to humanity and the Earth is immense, but even so they want you to believe there’s nothing to fear. Only time will tell.