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Crushing Zika via genetically modified mosquitoes

With the Olympic games under way in Zika-ravaged Brazil and the United States' first locally transmitted Zika cases now confirmed, a biotechnology company is looking to take a bite out of the Zika crisis — by deploying armies of genetically modified mosquitoes.

Oxitec, the British subsidiary of Germantown, Maryland-based Intrexon, received a green light from the Food and Drug Administration on Friday to release the GMO mosquitoes as part of an investigational field trial in Key Haven in the Florida Keys. Residents of Key Haven will vote on the trial in a nonbinding referendum scheduled for November, with final approval to reside with the Florida Keys Mosquito Control Board.

"It couldn't have come at a better time," Oxitec CEO Hadyn Parry told reporters Friday.

While the company is glad it got the regulatory green light, Florida locals are concerned there may be risks to the human population.

Friday's FDA ruling, known as a Final Finding of No Significant Impact and Final Environmental Assessment (FONSI), deemed that any toxic or allergenic effects in humans caused by the GMO mosquitoes would likely be negligible.

The first U.S. cases of the virus attributed to local transmission were reported last week in a neighborhood in Miami. Zika has been linked to microcephaly and other birth defects, as well as the neurological disorder Guillain-Barré syndrome.

Oxitec's genetically modified mosquitoes are members of the Aedes aegypti species, which causes the Zika virus and several other infectious diseases, including dengue fever, yellow fever and chikungunya.

Since male mosquitoes do not bite, Oxitec's mosquito brigade will not be capable of spreading disease. When they mate with wild female Aedes aegypti, their offspring do not live long enough to reproduce.

Parry said the GMO mosquitoes have been deployed successfully in the Cayman Islands, Brazil and Panama, where they have reduced the population of Aedes aegypti mosquitoes by 90 percent over a period of six months.

In addition to having a self-limiting gene, the Oxitec mosquitoes carry a colored marker invisible to the naked eye...