With the fears of the Zika virus abounding, do we need the flying pests?
Do you know what the deadliest animal in the world is? Sharks? Nope. Tigers? Not even close! Humans? Believe it or not, we’re just the second deadliest.
The deadliest animal in the world is actually the humble Mosquito. That’s right, the Mosquito.
These flying monsters are way more than just an annoyance…they are carriers of some of the deadliest diseases known to man, and those diseases kill over 700,000 people per year! (By comparison, we humans manage to kill less than 500,000 of ourselves in a given year.)
As if that weren’t bad enough, this year Mosquitoes have a new disease that they’ve started gifting us with: Zika. Fortunately, Zika rarely kills people, and the symptoms are very similar to mild flu.
Unfortunately, when the Zika virus infects a pregnant woman, it greatly increases the risk of her baby being born with Microcephaly. Microcephaly is a birth defect that results in the baby’s brain being smaller than normal and otherwise underdeveloped. (If you decide to search for pictures of affected babies, prepare yourself for a shock. It’s even worse than it sounds.)
As I write this, Zika is beginning to spread throughout the U.S. There is no treatment, and no cure. And, given that there has been no real action from Congress to help slow the spread, it’s just going to get worse.
So, that brings us to a strange and drastic solution that’s been bandied about in the past, but never moved past the “idea” stage. Specifically, should we just eradicate mosquitoes entirely? That is, should we, humans, use our advanced technology to make mosquitoes extinct.
On the face of it, it’s a crazy idea. Eliminate an entire species? On purpose? Sure, we’ve inadvertently sent thousands (millions?) into extinction over the years, but, with the possible exception of the smallpox virus and the Guinea Worm, I don’t know of any other species that we’ve actively tried to wipe off the face of the Earth.
So, what effect would the extinction of mosquitos have on the ecosystems of the world?
Well, mosquitos (and their larva) provide easy meals for fish, bats, birds, spiders, and pretty much anything else that’s bigger than them and able to catch them. But, there are thousands of other insects that these predators could eat.
The other side of that question is, of course, “What do mosquitos eat?” The answer seems to mostly be “blood.” So, they don’t really have a species that they keep under control (unless you count humans). Of course, it’s their single-minded focus on blood that makes them such an efficient means of moving blood-borne diseases around the world.
Given then that they are literally blood-sucking killing machines that are easily replaced in the food chain, the answer seems clear. But, what would be the ramifications of removing them from the web of life?
Well, of course, there would be some hiccups in the food chain, but long term, it should recover nicely. Beyond that, the only real down-side would be, more humans…more humans to accelerate climate change, pillage the planet’s resources, and produce reality television. And then, of course, there’s the possibility that something even worse would evolve to fill the niche formerly occupied by mosquitos. That’s a scary thought.
But, assuming we decided to go through with it, how would we do it?
The obvious solution is genetic engineering. We either create and release a bunch of sterilized males into the mosquito population, and they mate to no effect. Or, we release “Trojan Horse” males that contain genes that are lethal to other mosquitos. These tactics, when used with traditional spraying programs, should drastically reduce mosquito populations and eventually drive them to extinction.
Of course it’s entirely possible that, once they are in the wild, one or both of these man-made mosquitoes could mutate and evolve into something much worse.
So, perhaps in this case, “the devil you know,” is the better choice, and we should leave well enough alone.
Steven Disbrow is a programmer who specializes in e-commerce and mobile systems development, an entrepreneur, comic-book nerd, writer, improviser, actor, sometime television personality and parent of two human children.