The Plan to Rescue Hawaii’s Birds with Genetic Engineering
by Antonio Regalado, MIT Technology Review, May 11, 2016 (excerpts)
Ecologist Eben Paxton, speaking on a cell phone from somewhere in one of Hawaii’s forests, wanted to talk about the scary events happening on the island of Kauai.
The “bird crash,” he calls it.
Hawaii’s fourth-largest island, says Paxton, a scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey, is seeing a sudden, rapid decline in native birds.
The prime suspect is avian malaria. It’s being spread by mosquitoes and it kills rare birds such as the 'i'iwi, a bright red honeycreeper with a curvy Dr. Seuss beak. Surveys carried out on the island’s rugged, roadless interior are finding fewer birds than ever before. Extinction for some species looks imminent.
So now a group of government officials, conservationists, and scientists in Hawaii are seriously looking at a high-tech solution: genetically modified mosquitoes.
They say the modified bugs, whose offspring die quickly, thereby reducing mosquito populations, could be the best chance to save Hawaii’s endangered birds. If these discussions move forward, one idea would be to release millions of genetically modified bugs to drive mosquitoes off of Kauai’s plateau and maybe right out of the entire archipelago.
The discussions around the first “landscape scale” use of gene-modified insects are still at an early stage and have been coӧrdinated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is responsible for endangered species. A spokesman at the agency’s Honolulu office declined to confirm the agency’s role, but said it was looking at “several” recovery plans for forest birds.
What’s certain is that genetically modified organisms are political dynamite on Hawaii. Some districts have passed ordinances to ban biotech crops from being planted. No one knows how Hawaiians would react to GM mosquitoes, but lately, mosquito technology has been winning positive attention as a potential high-tech fix for human diseases such as Zika. One company, Oxitec, is testing GM mosquitoes in Brazil and hopes to do so in Florida. Because of a genetic addition to their DNA, those bugs have offspring that die prematurely. Release enough of them and the number of mosquitoes can drop drastically, although they don’t disappear altogether.
While fighting human disease gets the attention and the funding, conservation could end up being just as important a use of advanced biotechnology….
Hawaii had no mosquitoes up until 1826. That’s when, historians say, a whaling vessel that had taken on water in Mexico carelessly “drained dregs alive with wrigglers” into a stream on Maui. Soon avian malaria followed. By 1902, travelers reported a person could spend hours in the forest and “not hear the note of a single native bird.”
In fact, some birds had retreated to higher ground. Above 4,000 feet, it’s too cold for Culex quinquefasciatus, the southern house mosquito, the one that gives malaria to birds. But these refuges are now under threat due to a warmer and wetter climate….
read … MIT Technology Review