This episode was originally published on October 20, 2020.

Megan Hall: Welcome to Possibly, where we take on huge problems like the future of our planet and break them down into small questions with unexpected answers. I’m Megan Hall. 

[mosquito buzzing noise] Did you ever wish you could wave a wand and get rid of all of those pesky mosquitoes? Especially the ones that spread serious diseases like zika, triple E and malaria? Some scientists think they have a solution. 

We had Luci Jones and Fatima Husain from our Possibly Team look into this. Welcome, Luci and Fatima! 

Luci Jones: Hi, Megan! 

Fatima Husain: Hello! 

Megan Hall: So, how are scientists trying to get rid of these mosquitoes? 

Luci Jones: To find out, we talked to Kara Fikrig, a Ph.D. candidate in the Entomology Department at Cornell University. She says scientists are creating genetically modified mosquitoes. They’re all male, and they’re designed to create babies that can’t reproduce.

Kara Fikrig: Their whole purpose is to mate with a female and trick her into mating with him, so then none of her offspring are gonna survive.

Fatima Husain: And the hope is that this makes those mosquito populations go way down. 

Megan Hall: So, would this approach just get rid of mosquitoes entirely?

Luci Jones: Not quite — scientists are actually only trying to kill a very small group of mosquitoes– the ones that feed on human blood and can spread disease.

Megan Hall: I didn’t know there were any other kinds!

Fatima Husain: Actually, there are thousands of species worldwide! Kara says they’re targeting a particular species of mosquito called Aedes aegypti, which are most common in urban areas.

Kara Fikrig: These mosquitoes breed almost exclusively in human made containers. So it could be terracotta, pots, tires, pieces of garbage in your backyard, they breed in these little pockets of water. 

Megan Hall: I have to be honest. This sounds a little scary, like the start of a bad science fiction movie. How do we know that things won’t go terribly wrong? 

Luci Jones: Yeah of course, using genetically modified mosquitoes is not risk-free. 

Fatima Husain: Females mosquitoes could develop a resistance to the lethal gene in those genetically modified males. Or, mosquito populations could intermix and share new genes that change how they interact or what kind of offspring they produce.

Luci. There is a lot that we just don’t know. But Kara thinks genetically-modified mosquitoes could save lives if they’re tested and regulated carefully.

Kara Fikrig: The ones who transmit the most disease feed predominantly on humans, they live around human habitats. they’re not really interconnected with a bigger ecosystem with the way you might expect. There’s currently no strong sign that we would mess anything up by doing this.

Luci Jones: Knocking out harmful mosquitoes this way would also reduce our reliance on insecticides, which are those chemicals we use to kill mosquitos.

Fatima Husain: Kara also says we’ve been using insecticides so much that many mosquitoes have actually mutated to be resistant to them, so we’re already dealing with modified insects!  

Luci Jones: Mosquito-borne diseases kill almost 1 million people per year. They are by far the deadliest animals for humans, so it’s an issue that deserves careful consideration.

Fatima Husain: And as climate change helps mosquitos spread to places that used to be less tropical, this issue will only affect more people.

Megan Hall: Thanks for looking into this, Luci and Fatima! 

Possibly is a co-production of the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society and the Public’s Radio.

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