On August 30, residents of a neighborhood in Key West, Florida, will head to the polls to vote on a referendum that would kick off genetically modified mosquito testing in the Keys. While the vote is non-binding, the majority of the district's board of commissioners say they will adhere to the outcome of the vote, The Key West Citizen reports.
The testing, which would be run by British biotech company Oxitec, would involve releasing about 3 million male mosquitos on a semi-isolated peninsula north of Key West over the course of 22 months.
"I think a referendum is great, as long as it is done in an independent way," Derric Nimmo, Oxitec's product development manager on the project, told the Associated Press. "An informed choice is what we want."
But not everyone in the Keys is excited about the prospect of their home being used as a testing ground for GMO mosquitos. The Citizen reported there were 60 anti-testing signs visible in Key Haven, the neighborhood of 444 homes where the testing would take place.
The battle about GMO mosquito testing is an ongoing issue in Key West, where in 2012 the city commission passed a resolution to prevent GMO mosquitos being released within city limits (Key Haven is outside of the city-limit boundaries). In the four years since then, a Change.org petition against mosquito testing in the Keys has garnered more than 165,000 signatures, many of them from people who don't live in Key West but feel passionately about GMOs.
“People just don’t want to be guinea pigs,” Mila De Mier, a former nurse and real estate agent who started the petition, told the Miami Herald in March.
GMO mosquitos work like this: Scientists genetically alter male Aedes aegypti mosquitos to create "self-limiting" strains that only reproduce offspring that won't develop past the pupae stage. The female Aedes aegypti mosquito is the variety that bites and transmits diseases like Zika, dengue and chikungunya to humans, and by effectively ending reproduction in a community, carrier mosquitos will eventually die off.
Oxitec has already conducted successful small-scale tests of GMO mosquitos in Panama, Brazil and the Cayman Islands, and the company says that there haven't been any adverse effects to humans or the environment. The FDA confirmed this conclusion with preliminary findings of its own in March, when the agency stated that GMO mosquitos pose no significant danger to the environment.
"Aedes is generally an invasive species, so removing an invasive species shouldn’t have any negative ecological implications in terms of the environment," Omar Akbari, an assistant professor at the University of California’s Center for Disease Vector Research who isn't affiliated with Oxitec, previously told HuffPost.
Aedes aegypti mosquitos cover a wide territory range in the United Sates during the summer, and experts anticipate local Zika outbreaks in humid southeastern states like Florida in coming months. For now, GMO mosquitos are one of the best potential solutions to a fast-approaching problem.