Each year, one animal puts the lives of nearly 1 billion people at risk. It's not a large predator like a bear, tiger, or shark.
It's the lowly mosquito.
The bug spreads viruses and parasites that cause untold devastation around the world. Though the headlines throughout the Americas are currently fixated on the current outbreak of the mosquito-borne Zika virus, many other diseases spread by mosquitos — such as Dengue fever, malaria, and yellow fever — pose a daily threat to millions of people, particularly those living in tropical climates.
Scientists are working tirelessly to develop vaccines and treatments for mosquito-borne diseases while others are trying to find ways of keeping mosquito populations in check, but there is one conceivable — albeit drastic — solution that would take care of the problem once and for all: complete eradication. No more mosquitoes. The end.
The most obvious concern about getting rid of these pests is the effect it might have on the food chain. As Janet Fang explained in Nature, most animals that eat mosquitoes would find suitable substitutes in other insects. The biggest loss would be felt by fish that eat the larvae, as they might have a harder time finding a new food source.
Fang also points out that mosquitoes are responsible for a certain amount of what might be called ecological "housekeeping" — helping decompose leaves and pollinating certain plants. That said, their contribution isn't so great that it would be disastrous without them. Certainly when you consider the upside.
All in all, the environment probably wouldn't suffer much if mosquitoes were gone for good.
Of course, the biggest question is: how would we get rid of them? While chemical insecticides are often used to manage mosquito populations, there are environmental concerns to consider with their application. Additionally, some mosquitoes have already become resistant to certain chemicals, rendering them useless. Eliminating all mosquitos with pesticides simply isn't practical.
In order to get rid of mosquitoes entirely, scientists have suggested a far more sophisticated approach: target their DNA. A recent study using a CRISPR gene drive has shown that it's possible to give mosquitoes genetic mutations that could be used in a number of ways. This particular study made the mosquitoes resistant to the parasite that causes malaria. But the same sort of technique could also be used to affect fertility and reproduction, driving them to extinction.
With the tools now available, the conversation turns to the morality of whether or not it's an option we should even be considering.
It's understandable that, by and large, we value human life more than the lives of other species. That said, mosquitoes have been on this planet for nearly 80 million years — far longer than we've been here. Is it up to us to decide that their time has run out?
These questions don't have simple answers, and there will be many important conversations about the ethics of species eradication in the future.
In this fascinating video, Anna Rothschild of Gross Science explains why mosquitoes are so problematic, and delves into the potential ramifications of getting rid of them.
Should we eliminate mosquitoes? Let us know what you think in the comments section.
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