On 24 September, scientists have stated that they were able to wipe out a population of mosquitos in the lab. They used gene editing to program extinction of mosquitoes that carried the malaria virus.
The genetic modification forced the mosquitoes to pass on an engineered trait to their offspring and next generations. It is similar to naturally occurring process, but scientists have made it so that the female mosquitoes no longer bite and reproduce.
The experiments were carried on Anopheles gambiae by scientists at the Imperial College London. They changed a gene called doublesex to make all females in every generation unable to reproduce and bite. The population of mosquitoes collapsed after eight generations when there were no more females for reproduction.
A Breakthrough in Technology
The lead author of the study, Andrea Crisanti, who is a professor in the Department of Life Sciences at the Imperial College London, explained their findings:
“This breakthrough shows that gene drive can work, providing hope in the fight against a disease that has plagued mankind for centuries.”
Malaria is considered the deadliest infectious disease. In 2016 it infected over 200 million people worldwide and killed almost 450,000.
The team has previously tried other tests using genetically programmed extinction in their lab, but the mosquitoes mutated and became resistant.
Crisanti explained that they would need to continue their tests in a confined lab that will mimic the tropical environment, adding that it will be a long time before testing the method in the wild:
“It will be at least five-to-ten years before we consider testing any mosquitoes with gene drive in the wild.”
The gene targeted by the team – the doublesex gene, has formed in many insects hundreds of millions of years ago, and it is shared by a lot of insects, with small variations. The researchers explain that this technology can be used in other insects as well:
“This suggests the technology could be used in the future to specifically target other disease-carrying insects.”
Andre Blair s is the lead editor for Advocator.ca. He holds a B.A. in Psychology from the University of Toronto, and a Master of Science in Public Health (M.S.P.H.) from the School of Public Health, Department of Health Administration, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Andre specializes in environmental health, but writes on a variety of issues.