Franken-bugs and the Zika virus

An entomologist doesn’t usually go around calling insects “bugs.” Such a person would reserve that term for a particular group of insects, specifically the order Hemiptera, which includes aphids and leafhoppers. Boxelder bugs (Boisea trivitatta) are common here in the American West and they are “true bugs” in that sense. But we ordinary mortals use “bug” for anything vaguely insectoid that flies, buzzes, crawls, bites and generally gives us the creeps. We are mostly lucky, those of us that live west of the 100th meridian and north of the Mexican border, in that our semiarid climate reduces the incidence of insect-borne diseases.

The biggest killer of all is the mosquito. One species, Aedes aegypti, is responsible for transmitting the virus which causes dengue fever. Tens of millions of people are infected yearly with dengue and it is fatal in one to five percent of the cases. There are treatments but no cure, and some experimental vaccines are being tested. We don’t hear much about dengue fever in the States as it mostly affects people in tropical and sub-tropical regions. It is endemic in Puerto Rico, for example, and has shown up in the Florida Keys, but places like Brazil and Malaysia have climates more suited to large mosquito populations.

There was a time when yellow fever was a serious problem, even in the States, and one of the most dangerous infectious diseases worldwide. The same Aedes mosquito was responsible. We have a vaccine now, and of course the more obvious solutions of mosquito control like liberal use of insecticides. Draining and clearing swamps, marshes, and other wetlands also reduced the mosquito hordes. This is what we do to combat dengue fever. The problem is that destroying mosquito habitat also means destroying the habitat of all the other wetland plants and animals! And mosquitoes reproduce rapidly and have developed resistance to the insecticides once used to control them. Many people are also concerned about the accumulation of these poisons in the environment, perhaps contaminating the water and food supply, and killing other creatures not targeted, a sort of ecological collateral damage.

Oh, what to do? Like I said here in the semiarid West we don’t have a lot of issues with mosquitoes and their blood-borne pathogens. But in an increasingly global world the spread of tropical diseases to new areas is happening. And with the recent threat of the Zika virus even the US Congress is taking notice. Yes, Zika is spread by the Aedes mosquito. In fact, the US State of Hawaii has declared an emergency over Zika. Makes you want to go out and stomp those little bastards, doesn’t it?

Naturally there are some creative solutions. One is called the Sterile Insect Technique (SIT) which involves releasing factory-altered males into the native population. They are sterile and the mating with females produces no offspring or infertile offspring. This method eliminated the screwworm fly problem in the US decades ago. The usual technique is irradiation of the larvae or pupae. Anti-nukers would probably get on board with this “peaceful use” of atomic energy, don’t you think?

SIT requires huge numbers of such altered insects. The radiation technique is not very precise and the carriers have a number of “lethal genes” that they pass on to the offspring. Dozens of countries have used this practice for decades, however, and SIT has been used effectively against the Mediterranean fruit fly (the “medfly”), for example. That has required the production of about 20 billion sterile males from global insect-rearing facilities per week. Wow! Billions of genetically-altered bugs in the environment! Who knew?

But wait, there’s more. Turns out that a company called Oxitech has created a sterile male Aedes mosquito using genetic engineering. This critter has the advantage of being mostly “normal” and “healthy” and can successfully compete with the “natural” males and pass on their death-gene to the offspring which then fail to grow properly and thus die. Apparently mosquitoes don’t hold up as well to irradiation as flies and other bugs and the SIT strategies weren’t as effective with the weakened individuals being released. So the biotech geniuses came up with a more narrow, gene-specific approach, much like a targeted rather than a broad-spectrum antibiotic. This new lab-made mosquito has been tested in the field and shown to effectively reduce the populations of dengue-carrying Ae. aegypti.

Just this morning I read a story on the BBC website (a marvelous place for news, by the way) which said that the World Health Organization (WHO) backs trials of GM mosquitoes for fighting the Zika virus. We get a lot of GMO talk here in the States but it mostly has to do with crops, particularly corn. We argue over safety and labeling and whatnot. We even have a local Oregon county that has banned the use of GM crops. Folks don’t want to eat GMO-based food, it seems. Recently the FDA approved the production of GM salmon for human consumption. Naturally this has created a lot of controversy as it is a big step up from something like Bovine Growth Hormone which is a product of recombinant DNA (molecular cloning) technology but not an actual modified organism. A number of US retailers will not sell milk from BGH-treated (more properly rBST, recombinant bovine somatotrophin) cows, and there has been a nation-wide pushback against the product.

Much of this is driven by a fear, a legitimate one in my mind, that we have moved too far from our food supply. Only two percent of Americans are farmers and most of us live far from where food is produced. In the rural West farms and ranches are part of the daily scene but city and suburban dwellers are increasingly isolated from their life-sustaining connection to the land. The factory farm is the new model and the mass-production of crops and livestock is the way of the future. After all there could be nine billion mouths to feed by 2050! Americans and citizens of other wealthy countries are more and more interested in organic foods and small-scale, community-based agriculture. While these are welcome trends, they are mostly confined to regions where people have a high standard of living already and thus can be picky about what they eat.

In the poorer regions of the world where Zika and dengue are real threats and where the food supply is not as consistent there is less resistance to new technologies. To be fair, many of these places also lack robust, democratic institutions, human rights, and independent media so even if people had concerns they might not have the means to act on them. Franken-bugs like the genetically engineered mosquito are actually welcome, though, as the disease is a greater threat than the potential environmental impacts. Thus it does not surprise me that WHO has pushed for trials of the new bug (known as OX513A) to fight Zika, as it has the additional benefit of perhaps containing dengue as well.

Technology is not good or bad. The first caveman (or cavewoman) who figured out how to make a knife out of a rock and used it to carve up an animal kill and feed the family could also have just as easily sliced up their neighbor with it and taken their food. People are capable of great acts of love and kindness as well as great acts of treachery. It is easy to mistrust corporations and view their achievements with suspicion. Pick out ten people at random and I’ll bet at least six of them will have a very negative view of Monsanto, for example. But that should not blind us to the remarkable advancements that have come as well. Dengue and Zika aren’t coming to the State of Jefferson anytime soon so I doubt we have to worry about OX513A “infecting” our local mosquitoes. Not that we have all that many!

Despite the fears of Franken-crops and Franken-fish and Franken-bugs the innovations are not going away. We haven’t blown ourselves up with our nuclear weapons yet, although we certainly could, and I don’t think we’ll go all Jurassic Park on ourselves, either. Not to say that we aren’t capable of messing things up, we are. It’s just that the solutions to global problems like hunger and disease are complex and multi-faceted and will require an integrated approach with a variety of tools at our disposal. So I’m rooting for OX513A. I hope those little buggers wipe out Ae. aegypti. I know that technological solutions alone are insufficient, and there are dangers in relying on such “fixes” when much of the problem is social, economic, and institutional. But damn if this isn’t a fantastic opportunity to learn as well as a real chance to help those who are much worse off than we are!



p.s. Just for the record, I’d eat a GM salmon. Maybe the new genes will give me some cool mutation like super-powers (or at least a better jump shot). Just kidding, I know it won’t do that. Seriously, I don’t worry about GMO in my food supply. I can think of a hell of lot more frightening things than that.


Death and Politics

This is my least favorite season. What season is that you ask? Election season. As I’ve accumulated years on this earth I have come to loathe politics. When I was younger I eagerly engaged in debates and discussions about the issues of the day. I thought I was smart and well-read and had something to say. But I could never really shake my old man’s favorite line: “opinions are like assholes, everybody’s got one.” Yeah, I know it was not HIS line, countless others have said it, but it fit my dad’s personality to a T. He had a boatload of opinions that he was happy to holler about and he was an asshole, to boot. I loved my father, but he really was a difficult sort.

Anyway, the longer I spent listening to people’s opinions the less I became interested. I’m happy you think cucumber-ginger ice cream is the greatest flavor on earth but I’ll stick with chocolate chip. I mean, really? Do I give a shit? No! And when I say I don’t give a shit that does not mean I disapprove. If you like that stuff, go for it. Just don’t shove it down my throat. In fact, I am cool with whatever floats your boat. I like happy people and if you want to do tae-bo at the crack of dawn with a gym full of other sweaty folks, more power to you. I’ll be sipping Peet’s and eating oatmeal because that’s how I roll.

Back to politics. Politics, for me, is intellectual death. The point of politics is to get votes. To get votes, you say what you think people want to hear. You keep it simple, and you lie if necessary, and it is almost always necessary to lie. Now I’ve got no beef with that. Really, lying is part of life. I’m a big boy. I accept that ugly fact. Advertising is lying and this country’s economy is built almost entirely upon advertising. Only a fool or a sociopath would look you in the eye and tell you with utmost certainty that his mass-produced take-out pizza is better than the other guy’s mass-produced take-out pizza.

That’s politics. Passing out the verbal equivalent of indistinguishable mass-produced take-out pizza slices. And claiming “mine tastes better, really!” I’m a good citizen. I obey the law, mostly, and stay out trouble. I don’t take what isn’t mine and I don’t mess with other people. I drive defensively and I use my turn signals. I pay my taxes and I vote. I don’t mind voting for “the lesser of two evils” and I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. I just don’t want to hear it anymore. I’m done. There’s nothing new, just the same old recycled jibber-jabber. My mind dies when I watch a political event, be it a speech, a convention, or a debate.

But this is the season. We get to elect a new El Presidente this November and by golly there’s a host o’folks chasing that dream. They are going to talk a lot and say very little. And all of us will line up this way or that, get in our tribes and holler and wave our banners, and try to stay friends through it all. But “messaging” hurts my brain. It’s bad for me. I don’t need and I don’t want “talking points.” I don’t see the world that way. I don’t think in “pro” and “con.” Those are just mental straitjackets. I see a continuum, colors that grade into each other like the spectrum, like a rainbow. I have a hard time with black and white despite my fondness for those kinds of movies.

I’m not a complete fool. I know some of those characters out there hoping to be POTUS are dangerous fuck-ups. I’m sure we could disagree readily on which ones. And one of them might win and fuck things up. I’m picking the one I think has the least chance of really blowing chow. I suppose a lot of the other voters think along the same lines. In the end, we’ll probably get someone not-too-great but not-too-horrible either and we’ll muddle along, much like before. I think we might be victims of our own expectations, that is, we hope for far more from our candidates than they can actually deliver.

I suppose I’m thankful for living in a democracy. Actually, it’s a republic, but we don’t seem to call it that nowadays. We get reminded all the time about the superiority of democracy but we forget that it’s a messy business. But, like taking out the garbage, I’m willing to do it. Taking out the garbage doesn’t kill brain cells, however. And if I want dead brain cells, I’ll whip up another cocktail.