Mahyco is one of India’s oldest hybrid seed companies. Its research facility in a village near Aurangabad in Maharashtra is packed with all the equipment needed to grow and test seedlings, from protein mixers to UV labs. And then, tucked into a corner of the facility are electric bats, like the one in the picture above, normally used to kill mosquitoes.
It’s not that Mahyco has a mosquito problem.
Further down the corridor is India’s only research centre for genetically modified mosquitoes.
Run by Gangabishan Bhikulal Investment and Trading, a sister concern of Mahyco, the company that partners with Monsanto to develop genetically modified cotton in India, the centre's research into genetically modified mosquitoes is aimed at combating dengue.
When granting approval for the lab in 2008, the Department of Biotechnology instructed GBIT to take appropriate measures to ensure their modified mosquitoes do not escape.
To escape, a mosquito will have to break through a fine net at the opening of its sealed plastic box where it lives most of its life, pass through four doors, meander down to the end of a dull windowless corridor, at the end of which is a door that leads to freedom.
Closed doors and windows are nothing to the determined insect. Hence, the bats.
Each of the three outer rooms that one must pass through to access the sanctum of mosquito cages comes with its own electric bat near the wall. This too, researchers at the facility say, is a requirement of the Department of Biotechnology. If any mosquito escapes, they are instructed to kill them.
None have, so far, researchers say.
While the lab and its technicians are Indian, the technology has been developed by Oxitec, a company set up in the United Kingdom to commercially promote research produced at Oxford University.
Their aim is to reduce the spread of dengue. The problem, in their view, is simple. Female Aedes aegypti mosquitoes spread the dengue virus. If the virus cannot be controlled by vaccines, the next logical target to reduce the incidence of the disease are the carriers of the virus.
This has indeed been the solution of public health systems until now. In the absence of effective preventive medicine, the most prominent approaches have focussed on controlling mosquito populations by limiting their breeding grounds – removing stagnant pools of water.
But instead of making mosquito reproduction inconvenient, Oxitec’s technology wants to make it impossible.
With their technology, male mosquitoes of the Aedes aegypti species will be genetically modified to carry a “kill switch” gene. When passed on to their offspring, the gene will ensure that they do not survive into adulthood.
Given that the life span of mosquitoes is only a matter of weeks, the modification could reduce mosquito population within months.
But this throws up ethical and scientific issues. What happens if female mosquitoes adapt and avoid mating with modified males? What are the implications of eradicating an entire species of mosquitoes?
“Aedes aegypti is an invasive species that is not native to India,” said Dr SK Dasgupta, the lead scientist working on this project. “So its loss will not affect the food chain here. We can reduce their population to the extent that the disease does not spread.”