Florida Votes "Yes" for Science

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Florida is in the middle of a major 'not in my backyard' brouhaha at the moment and biotechnology is at the center of the debate.

During the election earlier this month, Monroe County, Florida voters cast their ballots to allow the first release in the United States of genetically modified mosquitoes made by Oxitec. These mosquitoes contain a "death gene" (a more complete description of how they work can be found here.) The male mosquitoes, when released, mate with female mosquitoes to create offspring that do not survive into adulthood. The release of these mosquitoes reduces the overall population to such an extent that the spread of viruses such as Zika is drastically reduced or stopped completely.

Florida residents are right to do something about Zika. Florida is the only state where there have been locally acquired cases of Zika - 139 reported as of November 9th. 

But, not everyone in the sunshine state is ready to accept the genetically engineered mosquitoes in their backyard. As published last year, a subset of Florida residents have had major reservations about the release of the GM mosquitoes, with uncertainty swarming around not only the safety of the mosquitoes but the risks associated with this new technology, and the integrity of the information being given to them by Oxitec. 

Despite these concerns, Monroe County voted in favor of an experimental release of the mosquitoes. However, the smaller area of Key Haven - the location where the release is proposed to occur - voted no, leaving Oxitec to search for another location for the release. 

The Florida Keys Mosquito Control Board of Commissioners is ultimately in charge of the decision, and obviously wants to keep moving forward indicated by the signing of an agreement with Oxitec just a few days ago. However, Key Haven will not be at the center of this innovative plan. 

Because of this location change hiccup, the release will certainly be delayed by a year or two as Oxitec needs to not only find a new location for the mosquito release, but also re-obtain approval by the US Food and Drug Administration. But, proponents of the plan are hopeful that it will proceed, albeit on a delayed timeline. 

Although not without controversy, Florida has done something right by initiating the use of genetically modified organisms to fight off infectious diseases including Zika, Dengue, chikungunya and others carried by the Aedes aegypti. Hopefully their willingness to remain open to scientific innovation for the benefit of the greater good will pave the way for further biotechnological advances in the future.