Researchers at the University of California have bred mosquitoes with fluorescent red eyes and they carry genes that can hinder the malaria parasite’s growth. Even better, these bugs, if released into the wild and allowed to breed, can pass on this trait to 99% of their offspring.
This trait, called a “gene drive,” was made possible by using a gene-editing technology called CRISPR. Mosquitoes with this gene drive create unique antibodies each time a female mosquito has a blood meal. When this happens, the antibodies seek out malaria parasites and stop them from developing, thus preventing them from infecting human hosts.
As previously mentioned, another genetic addition is the ability of these engineered mosquitoes to pass on this malaria-stopping trait to nearly 100% of their offspring, which ensures that the trait would spread through wild mosquito populations and potentially halt all mosquito-borne transmissions of malaria.
The disease known as malaria occurs when a person is bitten by a mosquito carrying the plasmodium parasite. According to the Word Health Organization (WHO), in 2015, there were roughly 214 million malaria cases and an estimated 438,000 malaria deaths. So this new breakthrough could literally save hundreds of thousands of lives.
However, the achievement is not without its drawbacks.
Critics are wary of some genetically-altered specimens accidentally escaping into the wild and breeding; this may have an, as yet, unforeseeable consequences but would definitely result in a loss of public trust in the scientists and institutions that supported this project. There is also talk about such genetically-engineered organisms being used for “insect terrorism,” though many scientists contend that, given the current state of the gene drive program, this scenario is highly unlikely.
Still, the researchers are convinced that the potential benefits of their work far outweigh the hypothetical risks, and are now on the lookout for a community where they could field test their creations.