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Florida voters will help decide the fate of genetically modified mosquitoes in the US

One of the key lessons from the Zika epidemic that’s swept through much of the Americas is that humans are terrible at controlling mosquitoes. And that’s a serious problem when these bugs carry diseases like Zika and dengue, which can cause serious damage to our health.

Voters in Florida have the chance to approve a cutting-edge study in mosquito-borne disease prevention: a trial of genetically modified mosquitoes that contain genes that make them self-destructive. The question is whether these modified bugs could actually make a dent in the local populations of the Aedes aegypti mosquito that carries Zika and other deadly viruses.

Data from field studies in Brazil, the Cayman Islands, and Panama suggests these insects could be very effective at causing mosquito populations to crash — potentially preventing millions of infections.

But we’ve never tested these engineered insects in the US, which makes the vote in Florida a potential game changer.

There are two ballot initiatives asking residents in Key Haven and nearby Monroe County, Florida, whether they’d be in favor of allowing their local health departments to run trials looking at the effectiveness of GM mosquitoes.

Back in August, the Food and Drug Administration gave Oxitec, a British biotech firm that’s been leading the development of these self-destructing bugs, preliminary approval to field-test their GM mosquitoes here. (The FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine also determined these GM insects would not pose a threat to the environment.)

This green light, however, was pending public input — and that’s what we’ll get today.

What’s interesting is that the preliminary data suggests GM mosquitoes could be extremely effective at squashing mosquito-borne diseases. As Vox’s Brad Plumer explained, when Oxitec tested its mosquitoes in Brazil, the GM mosquitoes helped kill off 80 percent of mosquitoes in the areas where they were released — "way more than conventional treatments. And, encouragingly, the number of dengue cases went down."

These encouraging results are why the World Health Organization has said GM technology may be necessary to help eradicate the Aedes aegypti mosquitoes that spread Zika.

The Florida votes are one of the most important referendums on science this election

But there are still big questions to answer about whether this approach can scale at a reasonable cost, and what impact the modified mosquitoes will have on infectious disease spread. (We do know they seem to reduce mosquito populations, but not whether they also help stop disease spread.)

While scientists seem to agree the method is safe for humans and the environment, we don’t know what ecological impact these GM insects will have. As Mother Jones explains, there’s some concern that wiping out Aedes aegypti may help its cousin, the disease-carrying Aedes albopictus mosquito, thrive.

There’s also the question of public acceptance. Americans have a lot of hesitancy around genetically modified anything. And if Oxitec wants to enter the US market, it’ll need a local trial to prove the effectiveness of its product. (For more on the trial, see this FiveThirtyEight feature.) If Americans oppose this technology, the trials may never go forward.

So that’s why these Florida votes are among the most important referendums on science this election.

The stakes are high, infectious diseases doctor Judy Stone wrote at Forbes: "Key Haven and Monroe County citizens are being asked to choose between an evidence-based option awaiting further study, or fear-mongering from people who have perhaps not understood the serious problems of pesticide use, nor yet seen the lives wrecked by viral infections transmitted by Aedes."

Depending on which way the votes go, Florida residents could help determine the fate of GM mosquitoes in the US — at least in the near future.