Swarms of genetically modified mosquitoes are released in a high-security lab located in Italy in aid of an experiment to end malaria in Africa.
Scientists at Ruth Müller Lab bioengineered large numbers of mosquitoes, allowing them to spread the gene drive to the insects' offspring. The idea is to use the editing technique called CRISPR to alter a specific gene known as doublesex, which is responsible for sexual development. If successful, nearly all of the children of parent mosquitos whose genes were modified will inherit the same trait.
Not Quite Females
Female gene-drive mosquitoes will retain the same sex at birth, but some traits will resemble that of the male. Specifically, female mosquitoes will have mouths similar to their counterpart, so they cannot bite and spread malaria. They will also have deformed reproductive organs, which will make it impossible to lay eggs.
Gene-drive mosquitoes may be released in hot spots like Africa, where sterile females will spread their mutation. Eventually, the population of the malaria-causing Anopheles gambiae will drastically decrease.
However, not everyone is convinced about the safety of releasing gene-drive mosquitoes in the wild.
"This is an experimental technology which could have devastating impacts," said Dana Perls of Friends of Earth, a group of environmental activists fighting against GMOs. "We need to slow down. We need to hit the pause button on gene drives."
Ruth Müller and Tony Nolan, a senior research fellow in Target Malaria consortium, assured that conservative measures were taken in every phase of the experiment to ensure that no gene-drive mosquitoes will escape from the lab.
They are also working closely with local stakeholders in Africa, including scientists, residents, and government officials. Only one out of hundreds of mosquito species will be affected by the experiment.
Mosquitoes On Drugs
Scientists said mosquitoes may have the same neural pathways as humans. Appetite-suppressing drugs will lose the mosquitoes' biting interest; thus, reducing the incidence of mosquito-borne diseases.
"We know these pathways are important in hunger in humans. Because they are evolutionarily conserved, we made the decision to use human diet drugs to see if they would suppress the appetite of the mosquitoes," said Leslie Vosshall, who leads the Laboratory of Neurogenetics and Behavior at Rockefeller University.