A team of US scientists has utilized the CRISPR-Cas9 genetic editing tool to create a strain of mosquitos that could wipe out malaria in as little as one summer.
Mosquitos are known on nearly every continent for being pests, but in many subtropical regions, they can be a truly destructive force, acting as a vector for infectious diseases like malaria and dengue fever. According to a report from the Washington Post, a recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences may have found a way to wipe out malaria from the worlds’ mosquito populations for good.
Malaria has been around for quite some time. Studies suggest that it may have infected dinosaurs, and traces of the disease have been found in ancient Egyptian remains. One study even estimated that the disease was responsible for the deaths of half of all of the humans who have ever lived.
Efforts to contain malaria have largely failed in developing countries thus far. Bed nets, quinine pills, pesticides and vaccines help, but researchers are still searching for a way to relieve the pressure from the disease for good.
Instead of focusing on human treatment, researchers at UC Irvine and San Diego have shifted their attention to the organism that is responsible for transmitting the disease; mosquitos themselves.
Researchers used the new gene-editing tool called CRISPR-Cas9, which acts as a pair of genetic scissors and can edit genes with great precision. The scientists wanted to engineer a mosquito that would be resistant to malaria, and to find out a way to make sure that subsequent populations were resistant as well.
Using a technique called a “gene drive,” researchers were able to override the randomness of genetic variation and ensure that 99.5 percent of the altered mosquitos’ offspring carried the gene that resulted in malaria resistance.
Researchers think that it would take just 10 mosquito generations, or about one summer, for malaria resistance to spread to a large portion of the population.
Genetically engineering wild species is no small feat, but it still poses significant risks to the ecological stability of many environments. If a gene intended for one purpose were to somehow spread to another species in an unforeseen manner, it could send shockwaves through entire systems and change the face of the biology in certain regions indefinitely. Still, the new study echoes other emerging genetic strategies for dealing with infectious diseases, and offers hope for everyone who has been affected by malaria or other mosquito-borne illnesses.
A press release from UC Irvine outlining the study’s findings can be read here.