Environmental News

GMO Mosquitoes Might Save Hawaii’s Endangered Birds

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A proposal to release genetically modified mosquitoes that has earned criticism in Florida is being welcomed in Hawaii, but for a different reason.

Florida recently suggested the release of millions of GMO mosquitoes to combat and prevent the Zika virus, dengue fever and other mosquito-borne diseases. While this was a controversial topic for the state, scientists and local government agencies in Hawaii have been looking at GMO mosquitoes for some time now to save the state’s endangered birds from extinction.

Dr. Lisa Crampton, project leader of the Kauai Forest Bird Recovery Project, told the Huffington Post that,

We’ve got this amazing treasure, birds found nowhere else in the world. And it’s our responsibility to take care of them.

Crampton went on to elaborate that mosquito-borne diseases, especially avian malaria, are some of the biggest threats to the Aloha State’s bird species, and that they would “be remiss to at least not consider” all possible solutions to conservation, including genetic modification.

Hawaii had zero mosquitoes until a foreign ship sailed into the islands in 1826, bringing the insects with them. Along with the destruction of native forest habitats and the introduction of foreign animal species, mosquitoes have since propagated and caused considerable harm to Hawaii’s native bird population.

Since humans inhabited the area, 71 of Hawaii’s 113 endemic bird species have gone extinct, according to the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources. Of the 42 remaining species, roughly 75% of them are listed as endangered. Recent studies predict that these birds are in danger of being wiped out due to climate change and widespread disease.

These alarming developments have spurred scientific and conservation communities into action. Luke Alphey, co-founder of British company Oxitec, was the first scientist to genetically engineer a sterile strain of mosquito. He had previously developed Aedes aegypti, male mosquitoes that carry the ZIka strain, to produce offspring that die quickly, reducing an area’s mosquito population.

Alphey heard about the Hawaiian birds and has put together a team of researchers at the Pirbright Institute to develop prototype strains of Culex quinquefasciatus, the mosquito breed plaguing the birds. Alphey said that his discussions with experts in Hawaii have convinced him that GMO mosquitoes would be a viable solution to the problem.

How things proceed depends largely on what the Food and Drug Administration decides in Florida, where it is assessing the possible results of allowing Oxitec to begin field trials. Should FDA approval push through in Florida, Hawaii can then evaluate their situation more concretely.

Eben Paxton, an avian ecologist with the US Geological Survey in Hawaii, says another contention would be Hawaii’s history with GMO agriculture. Although scientists say this should not be compared to GMO mosquitoes, Hawaii does have a record of executing similar population control plans, such as the introduction of mongooses to the islands to control rats, which ultimately failed as the nocturnal rats kept well away from the mongooses, which preyed on the native birds instead.

Paxton further says that  if properly executed,GMO mosquitoes could be the best, and maybe the only way, to save Hawaii’s birds.

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