"Mutant mosquitoes" may stop spread of deadly diseases in Florida Keys

Look out, mutants are coming to the Florida Keys. Mutant mosquitoes, that is. Millions of them.

At least that's the plan being considered by federal health officials to head off dengue fever and chikungunya -- two deadly, mosquito-borne diseases.

A British company hopes to prove its genetically modified insects can kill off most of the mosquito population on the island of Key Haven. But there's resistance as more than 145,000 people have signed a petition to stop the test.

Dr. Christie Wilcox, a molecular biologist who writes the Science Sushi blog for Discover magazine, said the process is relatively straight-forward.

"So the plan is that Oxitec has designed these genetically modified mosquitoes, which are autocidal, which is just basically fancy words for 'they kill themselves,'" she said. "And the way it works is they release a bunch of males, the males go out there and find some lovely ladies to spend some time with, and then all of the offspring that they produce die at the larval stages, so they don't get to become adults. And ideally, if you can release enough males so that you have every single female out there with one of these genetically modified males, then you'd kill off the entire population in one go."

This idea has already been tested in the Cayman Islands, and Wilcox said residents shouldn't be wary of the genetically modified insects.

"I think anytime people hear 'GMO' or 'genetically modified,' they kind of get a little bit scared," Wilcox said. "We've got a lot of fear based on genetically modified crops here, but these mosquitoes are really, really different than any of the crops out there. And it's the same technology essentially, but it's being applied in a very different manner."

Wilcox said the technique was very effective when previously used.

"So in the Cayman Islands and in Brazil, it was anywhere from 80-96 percent of the mosquitoes that they were trying to kill were gone," she said.

There are no vaccines for dengue fever or chikungunya, and as the U.S. becomes more globalized these diseases become even more of a threat. While there are other methods of combating the spread, those methods are either not fully effective or also in the experimental phase.

Wilcox said she does not see any drawback to releasing the genetically modified mosquitoes.

"Honestly at the moment, no," she said. "The way this works, it's just a field test, and the real drawback would be if it doesn't work. So this is the test to find out if it works, and then once we know whether or not it works or how well it's going work, then we can talk about whether or not we're going to scale this up to really cover all of Florida."

Wilcox also added that the modified mosquitoes would have no ripple effect on the environment.

"Absolutely not, not with these guys," she said. "So the particular species they're targeting - Aedes aegypti - is invasive in Florida to begin with, and it only makes up 1 percent of the mosquitoes in the Key West area. So we're talking about no real effects on anything that would eat mosquitoes, and we're getting rid of something that shouldn't be there anyway. So maybe some of the native species would have a chance to bounce back."