Gene drives are changing the way we handle diseases and pests

A technique called gene drives could permanently change the way we deal with disease-carrying pests and invasive species.

Insects and invasive pests can wreak havoc on crops and contribute to the rampant spread of diseases, but a new study may have finally identified a method that could help keep some of the most damaging species under control.
According to a report from the New York Times, a new study from researchers at the imperial College London outlines a new genetic method for keeping tabs on mosquito populations, some of the heaviest offenders in spreading dangerous diseases like malaria and dengue fever.

Gene drive systems allow researchers to insert a gene into a specific population and have it spread rapidly, allowing for a certain trait to be expressed in the vast majority of a population. Researchers have still not tested gene drive systems in the wild, but trials run on laboratory populations of fruit flies have proven quite effective.

Researchers Andrea Crisanti and Tony Nolan from the Imperial College London want to use the method to help control populations of mosquitos that spread dangerous diseases like malaria and dengue fever. In order to achieve this goal, they will need to successfully wipe out a population with a single gene, a method known as a crash drive.

The biologists are currently working on a gene crash drive that would destroy the X chromosome in mosquitos’ sperm cells, which would all but ensure than subsequent populations of mosquitos were nearly 100 percent male. This would result in the crash of an entire population within one generation, effectively eliminating mosquitos as vectors for disease.

Female mosquitos become infertile when a copy of the crash drive is inherited from both of its parents. The crash drives would be able to “suppress mosquito populations to levels that do not support malaria transmission,” according to the study.

Scientists believe that the technique could be used to fully eliminate a pests’ ability to transmit dangerous diseases, but many concerns have been raised about the possibility of a gene drive being unintentionally released into the wild. Concerned parties have brought up the controversy raised by genetically modified foods, and researchers are hopeful that public confidence for the technique can be won early on.

Despite some of the limitations behind gene drives, they represent an opportunity to seriously curb the spread of infectious diseases from rapidly-sexually-reproducing vectors like mosquitos and ticks. The study’s findings were published in the journal Nature Biotechnology.

A press release from Imperial College London outlining the details of the study can be found here.

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