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Jurassic Farce

It feels like I live in the real world example of Ray Bradbury’s All the Summer in a Day but for the last two weeks we have had sun and heat and it has been glorious. I get Christmas and Thanksgiving and New Years as vacation, but who needs that? I need July and August to live the vida loca in the Oregon summer. Who wants to blog when I can be outside, at concerts, golfing, hiking and…

Yes Dr. Gorski. I did agree to write an entry every other Friday. Yes Dr. Gorski. I know you have the documentation. Yes Dr. Gorski, I do not want any of that information made public. No one needs to know that I wanted to be a naturopath when I was young. Sigh. Yes, Sir, I will get to blogging. Damn those youthful indiscretions. Let’s see how little I can do and meet my obligations with the powers that be.

My professional career is based upon inflicting death, and in my time I  have obliterated uncountable numbers of unicellular organisms. If there were such a thing as Karma, I would certainly return in the next life as a rabbit in a syphilis lab. But there isn’t, and I can kill and kill with a clean soul. There is no guilt or hesitation in killing unicellular life, or even multi-cellular life, as long as it cannot be seen without a microscope. I start to get a wee bit squeamish as soon as I can see a life form. I tend to not kill bugs or animals, unless, of course, they can be eaten. If it tastes good, all bets are off. But as a tree hugger, I tend to look upon killing wildlife and extinctions as a bad thing.

Well, maybe. I am glad that smallpox and rinderpest are no more, but they are viri* and not really life. I would not be saddened to see the end of polio, measles, or many of the other diseases that plague mankind. Extinction of organisms whose sole ‘purpose’ is to sicken and kill humans would be, I would think, a good thing. As life gets more complicated, the unease with extermination grows. Except for the dogs in my neighborhood, but that is really irresponsible dog owners (a redundant phrase) and not the barking vermin.

Mosquitoes have been a bane on humans since the beginning of time. It has been estimated that half of everyone who ever died has died of malaria. There are the other mosquito borne infections that kill and sicken: West Nile, Yellow Fever, Dengue, the various hemorrhagic fevers. I think mosquito borne illnesses have left more evolutionary footprints in our DNA than any other illness, from sickle cell disease to G-6-PD deficiency. And wildlife, without ready access to netting and DEET, suffers more. The world would be a better place without those blood sucking insects.

Well maybe. Bug Girl was kind enough to point me to an article that suggests that, unfortunately, mosquitoes, even the blood sucking mosquitos, may have an important niche in the ecosystem as food, if not as blood suckers. I will mention here a bit of skeptical heresy, but I was never that enthralled with Cosmos. Most science shows elicit ‘a tell me something I don’t know’ response. My PBS epiphanies were Shock of the New (an art show?!?) and Connections. Actions always have unintended consequences and mosquitoes probably have many under-recognized connections with their environment. No good deed goes unpunished, so getting rid of all 3500 species of mosquitoes would undoubtedly be a bad thing, but controlling or eradicating the few that are responsible for so much human death and disease would be a net benefit.  In medicine sometimes there are no good solutions, just the least bad solution.  What is worse?  A million humans dead a year or the end of Aedes aegypti? As the experiment with DDT demonstrated, eradication of mosquitoes is probably impossible, but control? Probably.

Dengue, along with other infections, is coming north. Dengue has been reported in the Florida Keys and at least 40% of people in Brownsville Texas are seropositive for dengue.  It is one of many infections that may  infect or reinfest the US as the world warms. If we could control mosquitos, we could decrease the chances of the spread of dengue and other infections.

There have been some clever approaches to the control of infections. Mansonella perstans, a parasite that causes filariasis, can be controlled by killing bacterial endosymbionts found in their gut with doxycycline. Another way to control infection spread is the use of mutant mosquitos. One slick approach is to release sterile males into the environment. If the females mate with the sterile males, then they lay sterile eggs. They used to release irradiated mosquitoes, but now they render the males sterile with genetic modifications. It is, by the way, very difficult to perform vasectomies on mosquitoes.

The nice thing about mosquitoes is they are homebodies, staying close to where they are were born. If you release a swarm of  of sterile males into a local environment, the females mate with sterile males and viola, no children. And the effects are limited to the local environment. Sound like a good approach for other species as well.

It appears to work. When sterile males are mixed with a wild population, there is an 80% drop in the mosquito population. That can only be a good thing.

To my mind it is the perfect way to control mosquitos: no spraying of chemicals, no side effects and, perhaps unfortunately, no permanent eradication of the mosquitoes. And since it is a local application of sterile males (only females, by the way, feed on blood)  there is little impact on wild populations, where the bugs can breed to be a continued food supply and repopulate human habits, requiring repeat treatments. Good for bottom line.

They want to try this approach in Florida and, what a surprise, over 100,000 people have signed a petition to prevent the release of the GM mosquitos. Why?

First, people do not want to be guinea pigs, from what I am not certain.

“”Have there been studies of what can happen if someone is bit by one of these mosquitoes?” said Key West realtor Mila de Mier. “Are we the subjects, the guinea pigs of this experiment?””

Male Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, which is what is modified,  do not bite, only females. Unless they are making homosexual mosquitoes as part of a government conspiracy. That would be just like the government. So there should be no bites from gm mosquitoes.

Of course there is always the worry about being bitten by a mutant insect. Think Peter Parker, although Bug Girl has written the definitive essay on what should happen if you are bitten by a radioactive spider. Imagine what would happen if you were bitten by a genetically modified gay male mosquitoes. It makes web shooters pale into insignificance.

The other worry is ‘a Jurassic Park event happening in the Keys.“ In Jurassic Park the dino DNA was extracted from a preserved mosquito and cloned to make new dinos. So a Jurassic Park event would be what: someone would clone the DNA from the blood in the gut of a mosquito to make what? More Floridians? With a Presidential election coming up, that is scary indeed with packs of voters unable to read a ballot or punch out a chad.

There is also the worry about the environmental impact of killing off large amounts of mosquitos, and that could be a real concern. That, to my mind, is the tricky one, and it is an interesting calculus: how much animal life are you willing to kill to decrease human suffering and death? But that is a political-ethical, not a scientific, question.

The science of sterile mosquitos would point to a safe and clever way to decrease the vector of many of the infections that kill and sicken humans with little downside.

The drive against the GM mosquitoes seems based on fear of government, fear of science and fear of biting gay mosquitos and a lack of understanding of the biology of mosquitoes and an appreciation of how rapidly infections can spread in a community if they can gain a proboscis hold. It looks like the ethic of the Natural News is more widespread than I had suspected.

I write this essay on my front porch and I have to stop now and then to slap a mosquito. We have yet to have West Nile in Oregon, and I have been predicting a small epidemic for about 5 years now. Still hasn’t happened, and I am uncertain why. I like to credit the superior beer for keeping the virus and mosquitoes at bay. Perhaps those in the Keys should make note.

Can I go back to playing Dr. Gorski? Please?

* the plural of Elvis is Elvi, so the plural of virus is viri. What is the pleural of empyema?

Posted in: Basic Science, Humor

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