Friday, July 13, 2012


Another day at work, at the end of which I was tearful, exhaustion making my emotions ragged and confusing. I packed up, went for dinner and then bought a copy of the New Yorker at the bookstore down the street.

There was a fascinating article about transgenic mosquitoes. A laboratory in Oxford has been modifying the genes of mosquitoes so they die in the absence of tetracycline; they then release the mosquitoes to breed. Since their descendents don't have any tetracycline, the kill-gene kicks in and they die. Because all the unmodified mosquitoes have bred with the modified ones, the population can die off in just a few generations.

It won't hurt the ecosystem, apparently, because the only thing mosquitoes are good for is making more mosquitoes; it's not like they're the mighty pollinating bee, or the soil-aerating earthworm.

But that's the plan for the mosquitoes. I'm sure it will go fine. Or the mosquitoes will mutate into 100-metre tall insects that lay waste to our cities. Because that's always what happens when you meddle with genes. Always.

I'm not sure what to think of this. There's a long and uncelebrated history of the unintended consequences of attempts to solve environmental problems. There's the giant snails introduced to Hawaii that ate all the other pests they were meant to - and then ate everything else as well. There's the giant killer robot badgers imported to Spain to get rid of rabbits that started the Civil War instead. And who can forget the zombie fish of Alcatraz?

There's been all sorts of rage about this. The article suggests that while Brazilians that have put up with dengue are happy to see an end to the fever, people in Florida see it as an attack by big business on their rights. Their rights to be bitten by proper, organic American mosquitoes.

On the one hand I'm biassed because it's a lab in Oxford that's invented the mosquitoes, and I'm proud of my university. But on the other: I've seen 28 Days Later, so I know that the rage virus was invented in the UK as well.

It's wonderful to have these sorts of things to be indecisive about, rather than trying to decide if it's better to die of malaria or yellow fever. Happy 21st century, everyone!


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