It’s funny how certain incidents stick in our minds while others just fade away in the memory fog. Do you find that? These are a couple that stuck in mine:
The first was a friend ‘liking’ my Animalista Untamed Facebook page and adding the comment, “Love animals and love people who also love animals. I do mean all animals though, not just the pretty ones.” Look lady, I said (only to myself though, not to her!) I’m vegan. I believe in reverence for life and ahimsa. I feed slugs for goodness sake. I’m not just into fluffy bunny rabbits.
The second was a friend watching me stop kids stamping on a colony of ants that were scurrying busily about on their day’s assignments. Later, sitting in her kitchen she saw me absently touching my bare arm – a reflex to a slight tickling sensation. “Oh, so you don’t mind killing mosquitoes then!”It seemed like she couldn’t wait to say it. But of course, the mosquito murder was entirely accidental – I hadn’t even realised it was there. I’m sorry mozzie. Or am I?
Exactly where in your respect and compassion for all life do you draw the line?
As a society, we view so many creatures as pests. I wouldn’t like my rescue girl Holly to be crawling with fleas for example. I don’t know if you’ve ever met a cockroach face to face? I haven’t, and I’ve no idea how I would deal with it if I did. As for mosquitoes we all know that they are carriers of deadly diseases like malaria and dengue fever. And now, very much in the news, the zika virus, suspected of causing babies to be born with the terrible deformity of microcephaly.
We know human activities do drive and have driven other animals to extinction, but that is never intentional – just as my careless mosquito murder was not intentional.
But what if we set out deliberately to render this ‘pest’ extinct?
What if we could rid the planet of mosquitoes forever? Wouldn’t the world be better off without them? The mosquito has few friends, even among scientists.
“If there was a benefit to having them around, we would have found a way to exploit them,” says Janet McAllister. “We haven’t wanted anything from mosquitoes except for them to go away.”
“I don’t think most people would have any qualms about totally eliminating them,” says Professor Hilary Ranson of the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine. “I spend most of my time trying to keep them alive and study them, but that’s in order to try to kill them. Ultimately I wouldn’t be too sentimental.”
Professor Steve Lindsay, the University of Durham, agrees: “I have no problem with taking out the mosquito.”
And even the great champion of biodiversity EO Wilson, author of the authoritative The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth, says “Keep their DNA for future research, and let them go.”
What do we know about mosquitoes? Some key facts you may not know – I certainly didn’t
- There are approx 3,500 species of mosquito but only a couple of hundred species bite humans
- Only the females are bloodsuckers
- Thanks to malaria, the mosquito has probably killed more than half of all humans who have ever lived.
- It is responsible for the deaths of nearly 1 million people annually
- It’s the only animal that kills more humans than humans do themselves
- It carries at least 7 different deadly diseases
- The only place in the world free of the creature is Antartica
- In summer the Arctic sky is black with them in swarms thick enough to asphyxiate caribou
- The males never suck blood. They are nectar-eaters and aid plant pollination
If you start getting cavalier about the existence of a living being, if we start to think it’s OK to eradicate something because it’s a threat to us, we put other ideas about the sanctity of life in question
Ok, since just a fraction of mosquitoes are blood-suckers and disease-carriers, it would be pointless to eliminate the lot – AND impossible.
But, for wiping out just one species, the Aedes aegyypti which carries zika, malaria, dengue fever and chikungunya, “there are extinction options. It wouldn’t be easy, but we shouldn’t forget about it” according to Dr Jo Lines of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. She adds, “We’ve got really good new weapons” One such is clustered regularly-interspaced short palindromic repeats – or, a bit less of a mouthful CRISPR.
CRISPR is the ability we now have to alter the genetic code of the males in captivity, to render them only be able to produce sterile offspring. They could then be released into the wild to mate with the unsuspecting females. “We can edit nature. This is an incredible new development” says Andrea Crisanti. Of course there are practical difficulties, like the huge number of captive males required to make such a thing feasible. But no scientist disputes that if the technology were perfected, the gene-alteration plan would have a remarkable positive effect on public health: many lives saved, many more freed from the burden of disease.Whole countries freed from their malaria burden becoming more productive, their development accelerated.
Right, so what about ecological repercussions of eliminating this ‘pest’? Again, most scientists are in agreement: birds and fish that specialise in feeding on mosquitoes would quickly adapt by turning to other less harmful insects which would with great rapidity fill the vacuum left. And the same goes for pollination.
But is there a more intrinsic philosophical reason why we shouldn’t drive an animal to extinction, even such a one that gets an entirely negative press?
“My instinct is: yes. If a part of our brain lights up with caution, that’s a really good instinct, and we should heed it. I don’t think ‘love of nature’ is a good reason not to do it. But I do think there’s something more robust: the sanctity of life. If you start getting cavalier about the existence of a living being, if we start to think it’s OK to eradicate something because it’s a threat to us, we put other ideas about the sanctity of life in question. And because that’s ultimately an artificial, human concept, it needs to be cherished.” Melanie Challenger
Who gets to decide?
What do you think? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Postscript Wow, life moves so fast these days, doesn’t it, especially on the net. I wrote this post last week but before I could get to publish it, this landed in my Inbox:
Right now, a British company named Oxitec is planning to release genetically modified mosquitoes into the fragile enviroment of the Florida Keys. The company wants to use the Florida Keys as a testing ground for these mutant bugs. 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.
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? Where is the third-party, peer-reviewed research on effectiveness and safety of GM mosquitoes other than Oxitec’s own claims of success?Will the more virulent Asian tiger mosquito that also carries dengue fill the void left by reductions in A. aegypti? Will the dengue virus mutate (think antibiotic resistant MRSA) and become even more dangerous? There are more questions than answers and we need more testing to be done.
Click here if you wish to sign the petition against the release of these GM mosquitoes in the Florida Keys
Update 23rd February 2017 – CRISPR promises a better way to stop mosquitoes spreading malaria, and without the need to render the insect extinct. Tony James from the University of California is “using the CRISPR-Cas9 technology to create a ‘gene drive’ system that spreads an anti-malaria gene inside the mosquito population. The gene basically destroys malaria, and then spreads on to the next generations.”
It sounds like a very promising approach, but it’s early days and the strategy would not be without its problems. Find out more from ZME Science.
In-depth article in bioGraphic – The Zika Challenge
28th February 2017 – As it turns out, Oxitec were refused permission to release the GM mosquitoes in the Florida Keys. Now MosquitoMate is hoping to trial there with male mosquitoes infected with a bizarre bacteria that renders their offspring sterile. Trials have proved successful in Myanmar in wiping out local mosquito population. Read more here
11th July 2017
Why mosquitoes should not be eliminated – PhysOrg
Researcher Catherine Hill, professor of entomology: “For the last 20 years I’ve been trying to figure out how to kill mosquitoes, and then I had this epiphany where, morally, I’m just not OK with it anymore”
During her years of research, Hill says she began to find mosquitoes to be amazing and beautiful organisms, and began to better understand that their removal could have an effect on the environment. She points out that mosquitoes are “a large part of the biomass in many ecosystems.”
“You pull one little piece and start to unravel it, and things happen,” says Hill.
An interesting fact about mosquitoes that Hill discovered is that “they sing to each other.” The wings of mosquitoes beat at varying frequencies, and it is thought that female mosquitoes use the frequency of the male’s wings to choose a mate. Once the male and female locate one another, their frequencies harmonize.
8th August 2017
10th October 2017
Gene drives have the potential to suppress mosquito populations, but resistant mosquitoes crop up
8th November 2018
Mosquitoes fly no further than 200 metres in their lifetime, so males with the infertility genes have to be delivered to precise locations if they are being used to control disease-carrying local populations of the insects. This study indicates the conditions and density they should be packed to survive shipping.
30th May 2019