Scientists at a British biotech company said they have evidence that their genetically modified mosquitoes, which are programmed for sudden, early death, can control the spread of dengue fever.

Dengue is carried by mosquitoes and is the scourge of urban areas in the developing world, much as malaria is in rural regions. The company, Oxitec, said it can decimate mosquito populations by breeding genetically modified male mosquitoes, then releasing them to mate with wild females…”We will be able to control dengue through controlling the mosquitoes that transmit it, especially in large urban areas,” said the company’s chief scientist Luke Alphey. “Thereby protecting many, many millions of people from this disease.”…Oxitec’s latest research…showed that up to 50 percent of wild female mosquitoes mated with Oxitec’s genetically modified male mosquitoes.

The company’s work has attracted the interest of some of the world’s economic honchos. At the Davos Economic Forum this week, Alphey will receive one of 39 Technology Pioneer Awards. The Gates Foundation’s Global Challenges in Global Health initiative is giving Oxitec $5 million over the next five years. The company has also received several million dollars in venture capital from East Hill Management Company and Oxford Capital Partners.

Oxitec’s technology is a variation of a proven process called “sterile insect technique,” which scientists have already used to eliminate the screwworm and the Mediterranean fruit fly from North America. It involves irradiating male insects, causing mutations that make them sterile. When released into the wild, they mate with females who then fail to reproduce.

But the amount of radiation used in that technique kills mosquitoes. So in a twist on the sterile insect technique, Alphey discovered a way to genetically program the bugs to die unless they’re fed the common antibiotic tetracycline. … But as with genetically modified crop companies like Monsanto, Oxitec could face a backlash from a wary public. Greenpeace, among others, oppose genetic engineering of organisms that could be released into the wild.

“Releasing millions of genetically modified terminator mosquitoes into wild ecosystems amounts to a reckless and uncontrolled experiment with a risky technology,” said Jim Thomas, of the ETC Group, a technology watchdog. “Oxitec’s (project) abandons all pretense of containment or possible recall. I wonder what sort of liability they are willing to assume if something goes wrong?” … “Genetically engineered insects for pest control are a literal disaster waiting to happen,” said Ronnie Cummins, director of the Organic Consumers Association, in an e-mail…

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