Editing mosquito DNA could help wipe out malaria and Zika — here’s how

From creating malaria-resistant mosquitoes to building “photonic fences” able to shoot down the blood-sucking insects with deadly lasers, there are a whole lot of exciting, cutting-edge ways that science is trying to deal with the mosquito problem. Researchers from the United Kingdom’s Imperial College London have developed a new, promising approach to add to the toolset: A “gene drive” which disseminates a genetic modification that stops female mosquitoes from reproducing.

“If this genetic modification can have the ability to incapacitate the female mosquito’s ability to reproduce it could be an incredibly powerful tool to suppress the mosquito population which transmits diseases, such as malaria, Zika, yellow fever, and so on,” Andrea Crisanti, professor of Molecular Parasitology at Imperial, told Digital Trends.

Gene drives are the name given to fragments of DNA that can be inserted into an organism’s chromosomes to trigger certain changes — in this case, stopping mosquitoes from reproducing. In a demonstration involving a caged population of Anopheles gambiae, the group of mosquito species which spread malaria, the gene drive was able to stop further reproduction after seven to 11 generations of mosquitoes. This marks the first time that scientists have been able to use genetic engineering to stop the reproductive capacity of complex organisms in a lab setting.

The gene drive technology alters a section of the doublesex gene, which triggers female development. Introduced in a small number of mosquitoes, the genetic modification is then spread through breeding. Males who carry the gene don’t show any overt changes, while females with just one copy of the modified gene are also outwardly unaffected. It is only when a female with two copies of the gene is born that the population crashes, as the female does not lay eggs or bite.

“With our previously available technology, it has been estimated that it would take something like 40 years to eliminate malaria from the world,” Crisanti continued. “This highlights the need to come up with alternative technologies.”

We’re still a way off from this approach being rolled out in the wild, but research such as this certainly holds an enormous amount of promise for the future.

A paper describing the work was recently published in the journal Nature Biotechnology.

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