Not Through Ignorance

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Someone actually wants you to sign a petition to increase Zika and Dengue

Every once in awhile, it is worth repeating the Isaac Asimov quote that inspired the title of this blog:

If knowledge can create problems, it is not through ignorance that we can solve them.

Yet ignorance breeds fear, and fear, apparently, breeds petitions over at change.org.  Facebook served up this little gem for me today:  a petition entitled Say No To Genetically Modified Mosquito Release In The Florida Keys, posted by Mila de Mier.  Her goal of 200,000 signatures is nearly met, despite the fact that there are only 25,000 residents of Key West, and there are less that 100,000 residents in all of Monroe County.

mosquito-gmoIt turns out this petition is quite old (4 years or so) and that the project she was attempting to block has apparently received approval and may be currently underway.  But having experienced the pain of reading the petition, I can’t let it pass without comment.  And even if it is old news, apparently it’s still out there, and so it should still be countered.

The rambling text of the petition certainly qualifies under the heading of ignorance, unless it qualifies as willful lying.  Here it is, with commentary.

Right now, a British company named Oxitec is planning to release genetically modified mosquitoes into the fragile enviroment [sic] of the Florida Keys.

The environment of the Keys certainly qualifies as fragile, but it is hard to understand how mosquitoes could damage that fragile environment.  Hurricanes, certainly.  Another catastrophe with an offshore oil well, perhaps.  Multiplication of the lionfish, maybe.  But mosquitoes?  Indeed, killing mosquitoes might normally require the widespread spraying of insecticide, which, depending on the insecticide in question, might indeed be a challenge to a fragile ecosystem.  So shouldn’t someone worried about a fragile ecosystem be standing up and applauding Oxitec’s environmentally friendly mosquito solution?

The company wants to use the Florida Keys as a testing ground for these mutant bugs.

“Mutant bugs” certainly sound scary, especially if you glance up at that mutant bug image (which I borrowed from the petition itself) – it looks like a meth-crazed (or maybe tomacco-crazed), bloodthirsty killer, outfitted by science with superhuman (supermosquito) powers of destruction.  But “mutants” are rarely more powerful than naturally-selected forms with hundreds of millions of years of evolutionary fine-tuning, and in this case, the mutant and its offspring are designed to harmlessly die.

Even though the local community in the Florida Keys has spoken — we even passed an ordinance demanding more testing — Oxitec is trying to use a loophole by applying to the FDA for an “animal bug” patent. This could mean these mutant mosquitoes could be released at any point against the wishes of locals and the scientific community. We need to make sure the FDA does not approve Oxitec’s patent.

Now I’m lost.  The petition is supposed to be directed at Adam Putnam, Florida’s Commissioner of Agriculture.  He doesn’t work for the FDA.  In any event, the FDA has already issued a preliminary opinion that the project will have no significant impact on human or animal health, to say nothing of the fragile environment of Key West.

Nearly all experiments with genetically-modified crops have eventually resulted in unintended consequences: superweeds more resistant to herbicides, mutated and resistant insects also collateral damage to ecosystems.

This is an outright lie.  Certainly, the so-called Roundup-Ready crops are more resistant to the herbicide Roundup, but crops aren’t weeds, and their resistance to Roundup does not produce resistance to any other herbicide.  Yes, application of herbicide to crops will slowly select for weeds resistant to that herbicide, but that has nothing to do with genetic modification of the crops – it has to do with the schedule of herbicide application, which is equally true for conventional crops.  More importantly, this sentence is a complete red herring – the genetically modified mosquito can’t produce superweeds.  It’s a complete non sequitur.  What exactly is Ms. de Mier (and 170,000 signatories) worried about?

A recent news story reported that the monarch butterfly population is down by half in areas where Roundup Ready GM crops are doused with ultra-high levels of herbicides that wipe out the monarch’s favorite milkweed plant.

I’d like to see this “news story” indeed.  No one “douses” their crops with Roundup, be it conventional crop or Roundup Ready crop.  And research shows that monarch butterfly populations are not limited by the availability of milkweed.  Now, if monarch butterfly populations are declining, that is worthy of investigation.  But nothing Oxitec is proposing to do with mosquitoes has anything to do with butterflies.  Again, if you are worried about butterflies, you should be standing on the rooftops cheering Oxitec and the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District for attempting to eliminate mosquitoes without spraying insecticides that might affect beneficial insect populations.

What about our native species of Florida Keys Bats. Are there any studies being conducted to see if these mosquitoes will harm the native bat population? Why would we not expect GM (genetically modified) insects, especially those that bite humans, to have similar unintended negative consequences?

I’m trying to understand this, but it’s really hard.  What similar negative consequences is she talking about?  Because there are crops that are Roundup Ready and Roundup reduces milkweed and milkweed is necessary for monarch butterflies and mosquitoes are genetically modified and they bite humans… is the concern that we won’t be able to feed human babies milkweed any more?  I’m lost!

But let’s go at this a different angle.  Oxitec wants to kill mosquitoes, and clearly Ms. de Mier is worried that if an Oxitec mosquito, doomed to die, bites a human, then the human might die as well – or at least suffer in some way.  But this concern conveys complete ignorance about how the mosquitoes are modified.  Admittedly, the technology is complex, but the biologists at Oxitec, and the FDA, and thousands of scientists worldwide do understand the technology, and do have justifiable confidence that Ms. de Mier’s fear is completely unfounded.

First, it is female mosquitoes that bite humans, but Oxitec only genetically modifies and releases male mosquitoes.  Thus, even if the GM mosquitoes could pass on some toxin by biting (and they can’t – but even if they could), only non-biting mosquitoes are modified.  But second, and far more importantly, the modification causes the mosquitoes to manufacture a protein that inhibits gene transcription.  This protein quickly causes the cells of the mosquito to cease functioning.  In fact, Oxitec had to build in the ability to turn off this gene prior to releasing these mosquitoes, or they wouldn’t even mature in the lab.  Because the agent is a protein, it is completely harmless to any organism (such as a bat) that might eat the insect, as proteins are normally and thoroughly broken down into amino acids before being absorbed into the body.  And even if Oxitec made a mistake and made a few modified female mosquitoes, and they happened to bite you, and the protein managed to accumulate in the fluids that enter the blood of the person bitten by the mosquito, the injected protein would be in such minuscule amounts compared to the size of the human, or dog, or cat bitten that the effect on any cellular machinery would be too small to measure.  If, indeed, it could have any effect, given that the protein is optimized to work on the gene transcription process of insects.

And by the way, if you are worried that a protein made by a GM mosquito might hurt a bat that eats it or a human bitten by it, shouldn’t you be just as worried for a bat eating or a human bitten by a mosquito doomed to die from an insecticide spray?  After all, insecticides which are sprayed aren’t proteins and may have a much longer active lifespan.  I’m not saying you should be worried about this either – I’m just pointing out that the fear of the technology is entirely due to ignorance, not knowledge.

Will the more virulent Asian tiger mosquito that also carries dengue fill the void left by reductions in A. aegypti?

As far as I can tell, the Asian tiger mosquito is active during more of the day, and therefore might be more likely to bite when people are out and about.  The more bites, the more virulent (capable of causing harm).  This is, so far, the one bit of cleverness in Ms. de Mier’s plea.  Of course, if the tiger mosquito moves in when the aegypti mosquito dies out thanks to Oxitec, then we would expect to see rises in disease rates.  Will Ms. de Mier then greet, with relief and celebration, the dramatic reduction in dengue fever cases in areas where the Oxitec mosquitoes have been released?

Will the dengue virus mutate (think antibiotic resistant MRSA) and become even more dangerous?

Well, after making one halfway decent suggestion, we return to kooky town.  If you are worried about a virus mutating, then you should reduce the virus’s ability to get into hosts where it can replicate and – you know, mutate.  Genetically modifying a mosquito won’t increase the rate of dengue virus mutation.  Indeed, killing off dengue’s host in great numbers is the surest way to reduce the rate of viral replication and therefore mutation.

There are more questions than answers and we need more testing to be done.

If there’s one reliable, laughable bit of hypocrisy you always hear from the Luddites of the world it is this – “We’ve got to stop testing this technology because we haven’t tested it enough!”  Whether it’s Greenpeace destroying a test field of potentially life-saving golden rice, or Ms. de Mier and her 170,000 petition signers trying to stop a field test of the Oxitec mosquito, you can be sure they don’t really want more testing.  Ms. de Mier, this is how testing works.  As the FDA has already ruled and as any professional biologist can tell you, the testing thus far has been more than ample to determine that field tests can proceed.  We know these things are safe to humans and animals, and now we need to find out if it’s effective in lowering transmission of disease.

Having exposed Ms. de Mier as either an ignoramus or a charlatan, let’s check out the comments and see who is signing this petition.

I don’t live in Key West, but I am sick and tired of Monsanto and other biotech companies using the general population as their laboratory! I can control what food I put in my mouth, but I cannot control their poisons blowing onto the crops that I eat, nor can I control getting bitten by mosquitoes! PLEASE do not let this insanity continue! No more genetically-mutated crap on this Earth!

Sandi White, Lowell, MI

Oxitec is not Monsanto.  If you don’t want poisons blowing onto your crops, you should favor development of GM crops which reduce pesticide use, particularly insecticide use.  Crap cannot be genetically modified, only the organisms (like Sandi White of Lowell, Michigan) which produce it (like the comment above).

I am certain that, though Oxitec claims that these mosquitoes will be harmless and/or beneficial, sooner or later it will be discovered that something is horribly wrong with these mosquitoes. Genetic engineering is in its infancy. Common sense dictates that the release of an experimental organism – one that breeds uncontrollably and will undoubtedly transmit antigens to humans and other hosts – into the natural environment is both moronic and irreversible.

Seth Casson, Kihei, HI

We should make all public health decisions on the basis of the certitude of Seth Casson of Kihei, Hawaii, right?  Genetic engineering is hardly in its infancy; it’s been used for several decades and is responsible for major medical advances such as the ready supply of insulin for diabetics and the creation of mouse models for neuroscience research.  The Oxitec mosquito can breed, this is true (that’s the point of releasing them) but the larva will die before maturity.  How is this breeding uncontrollably?  And can we all agree Mr. Casson has used the word antigens while having no idea what it means?

I am also sick of Monsanto and other biotech companies using us as guinea pigs. We really DO NOT need to let loose GM mosquitos into the environment. Whatever happened to the USA being a country “for the people, by the people”? We were never asked if we wanted GMOs released into our environment and polls show that 90% or more of citizens don’t want them. It makes me incredibly sad and angry that the US has become a falsely “democratic” nation. There is very little democracy left if we have no voice.

Mairin Elmer, Fallbrook, CA

Oxitec is not Monsanto.  Would Mr. or Ms. Elmer vote tomorrow to rid the world of insulin, or cheese, or other products largely available due to genetic modification?  I think if you announced to the world they’d have to give up inexpensive cheese, that 90% figure would drop right quick.  Heck, 80% of Americans oppose food with DNA (at least unlabeled).  If we get rid of food with DNA, try surviving on salt.  It’s the only food eaten in quantity that has no DNA.  Of course, the food idiots tell you salt is bad for you too.

I’m signing because I want these atrocities to stop. You can’t mess with Mother Nature & not have something bad happen, they don’t know what they’re doing!!!

Karen Whissen, Newark, OH

Ah yes, the Frankenstein gambit.  You can’t mess with Mother Nature, says Ms. Whissen, pounding angrily on an iPhone constructed of rare metals mined from the earth’s crust.

There’s not much point in going on, I suppose – by definition, if someone signed the petition, the comment is unlikely to be scientifically grounded.  Perhaps, instead, we should take some comfort in the fact that only 170,000 people signed the petition, and not a single one of them could justify that signature with a coherent rationale.

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