Mosquitos are one of the most hated insects but their days could be numbered. A team of researchers is currently testing genetically-altered mosquitos that have the potential to spread a lethal infection which could wipe out the entire species.
The project aims to combat mosquito species that facilitate the spread of certain disease. The primary target is represented by the mosquitos that contribute to malaria epidemics in Africa.
A large-scale test is currently in progress at a high-security lab in Italy. The results of the test could lead to breakthrough progress according to one of the lead researchers.
The laboratory was specifically built to allow researchers to observe the insects and experiment with them in a high-fidelity environment that can be strictly controlled to avoid undesirable consequences. Since this is experimental technology, the genetically-altered mosquitos have to be kept away from the outside worlds.
The mosquitos are equipped with an enhancement called gene drive. In normal conditions, only half of the genetic pack is shared by the offspring, but the gene drive will ensure that all the progeny will gain the modified gene.
The genetic structure of the mosquitos was edited with a high-power gene editing tool called CRISPR. One can envision the tool as a powerful microscopic laser that can cut specific chains of DNA. The researchers targeted a gene named doublesex, which plays an important role in the development of mosquitos.
The modification changes the shape of the mouth in female mosquitos, making it similar to one of the male mosquitos, which means that they are no longer able to bite and spread diseases. The reproductive organs are also affected, and the new generation of mosquitos is unable to reproduce.
At this point, further research is needed to observe the long-term secondary mutations that could appear. It is hoped that the once the mosquitos are released in African villages they will be able to spread the mutation. If all goes according to plan, the local mosquito population should be eliminated.
Brad is a former Senior Fellow at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University, is an award-winning travel, culture, and parenting writer. His writing has appeared in many of the Canada’s most respected and credible publications, including the Toronto Star, CBC News and on the cover of Smithsonian Magazine. A meticulous researcher who’s not afraid to be controversial, he is nationally known as a journalist who opens people’s eyes to the realities behind accepted practices in the care of children. Brad is a contributing journalist to Advocator.ca