Scientists have already started creating genetically modified mosquitoes that are either infertile or resistant to the malaria parasite using CRISPR, a powerful and controversial gene-editing tool. Recently though, Bill Gates spoke up, endorsing the use of CRISPR, to create malaria-resistant mosquitoes.
CRISPR effectively identifies and snips out the naturally occurring form of DNA when it appears in offspring, thus promising to rapidly spread malaria-resistance through mosquito populations.
“Gene drives, I do think, over the next three to five years will be developed in a form that will be extremely beneficial,” Gates said in the interview, ahead of speaking at the American Society for Microbiology conference in Boston. “Of course, that makes it a key tool to reduce malaria deaths.”
Malaria affects more than 200 million people each year and kills nearly 500,000, most of whom are children, according to the World Health Organization. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is a staunch supporter in the fight against malaria, even giving out a $150 million grant in 2014 to develop vaccines.
Although Gates is endorsing the use of CRISPR, the tool still raises ethical issues in the scientific community. For one, editing genes could result in unexpected side effects on the species. Because of the editing, a ripple effect could occur through the populations and their ecosystems. Also, people generally get scared whenever they hear the words “genetically modified.”
Policy makers and a number of scientists are trying to regulate the use of CRISPR. They assert that safeguards for this technology must be pioneered in order to limit the spread of it outside of the lab, and that a public dialogue is needed before any gene-editing experiment could begin.