Could genetically modified mosquitoes save Hawaii’s endangered birds?
by Michael Specter, The New Yorker, September 9, 2016 (excerpt)
Mosquitoes, which carry avian malaria, are a principal reason that just forty-two of more than a hundred species of native Hawaiian birds remain. Most of them are endangered.
There were no mosquitoes on the Hawaiian islands until early in the nineteenth century, when they arrived on whaling ships. That meant that native birds had no exposure to the diseases that mosquitoes carry, and therefore no immunity. One way to protect the birds from malaria has been to kill mosquitoes with chemicals. But… [p]oison that can kill mosquitoes frequently also kills the plants and animals that surround them.
Science may offer a solution, however. There are now genetic technologies that, at least in theory, are environmentally benign, but could wipe out the mosquitoes that have decimated the birds of Hawaii—and those that endanger human health as well. That has many conservation ecologists tremendously excited…
Any sentence that includes both the words “genetic” and “modify” causes controversy—often… even before the facts are discussed. Many in Hawaii are particularly sensitive to what they see as the abuses of biotechnology. Critics argue that altering genes to save birds could cause extinctions and other unknown effects, and yet this technology may present the first genuine opportunity to protect these vanishing species….
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