An insect control company has gained state and federal approval to release genetically modified mosquitoes in the Florida Keys to tamp down on the transmission of the Zika virus, which can cause devastating birth defects in babies whose mothers contract it.

Welsh artist Ralph Steadman depicted this mosquito as part of an effort to raise awareness for endangered species. Courtesy: Ralph Steadman

The genetically engineered Aedes aegypti mosquitoes developed by Oxitec carry a protein that prevents their female offspring from surviving.

The male offspring survive, but since male mosquitoes don’t bite there would be no risk — and no added nuisance — to humans or animals.

And since female mosquitoes mate only once, the wild mosquito population is expected to plummet every time a wild female mosquito mates with a genetically modified one.

In a press release, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency described the controversial GMO technology as a “promising new tool” to combat the spread of mosquito-borne disease.

Oxitec is required to regularly monitor the mosquito population to assess how well the genetically modified male mosquito releases are working.

There are other methods of sterilizing mosquitoes.

Last year scientists in Hawaii launched an ambitious project to create a new conservation tool that would control the mosquito population by infecting the bugs with a bacteria strain that would render their offspring sterile.

It’s a comparatively basic but sure-footed — and less controversial —technique. If it works, and if it can be implemented quickly, Hawaii’s rare forest birds might get a much-needed lifeline.

Mosquitoes carrying avian malaria have become the most severe threat to the survival of Hawaii’s forest bird species, some of which are teetering precariously close to the brink of extinction.

With climate change intensifying the threat, conservationists worry mosquito-borne disease could wipe out the last of Hawaii’s defenseless forest birds within decades.

The technology could take years to develop, according to researchers working on the project.

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