Genetically Modified Mosquitoes A ‘Quantum Leap’ Towards Ending Malaria

Here’s a terrifying fact; The mosquito is responsible for the death of 50% of every human that has ever lived.

Every day, malaria-infected mosquitoes threaten 3.2 billion people on Earth – that’s almost half of the planet’s entire human population – and despite the fact malaria is a disease which is treatable, every year 670,000 people die from the disease, with the majority of these being young children in sub-Saharan Africa.

However, the student in Anthony James’ basement insectary at the University of California may have discovered a breakthrough – and rewritten the laws of evolution whilst they were at it.

How’d they do this? Well, it all started in the eyes.

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By the laws of nature, any bugs which were born from fathers with fluorescent red eyes and mothers with normal ones, should have eyes which are only about half red. Makes sense.

However, after they counted them, they found that 99% had glowing eyes.

Now, that’s pretty cool, but the eye colour was just a physical trait of what these mozzies could really do. James’ mosquitoes all carry gene that stop the malaria parasite from growing – meaning that if they were every released into the wild, their genetic make-up could spread through the mosquito population, and potentially put an end to the spread of malaria.

So, how did they achieve this?

Well, the team used technology, known as a "gene drive”, built it using the gene-editing technology known as CRISPR.

Public health organisations across the world have been anticipating an effective gene drive in mosquitoes for over a decade. However, the breakthrough raised some serious concerns.

Kevin Esvelt is a gene drive researcher at Harvard University's Wyss Institute, and he recently stated;

"This is a major advance because it shows that gene drives will likely be effective in mosquitoes. Technology is no longer the limitation."

Esvelt concerns echo those of many others, in that humanity is not prepared enough to see these theories start to become reality, and is pleading with regulators to give projects like James’ more attention.

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The fact that gene drives and CRISPR allow for the editing of DNA has sparked a huge debate over what the technology could and should be used for. Many people have discussed the possibility of designer human babies, But Henry Greely, a law professor and bioethics specialist at Stanford, says environmental uses are more imperative than a few modified people;

"The possibility of remaking the biosphere is enormously significant, and a lot closer to realisation."

The mosquitoes have two important genetic modifications.

The first is that the genes that produce antibodies whenever a female mosquito has a "blood meal", bind to the parasite's surface and terminate its development.

However, even this modification would become lost in the wild through any offspring, as only half of the DNA would be passed on as the mosquito breeds

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That's where CRISPR comes in.

In a gene drive, components of the CRISPR system are added such that any normal gene gets edited and the genetic cargo is added to it as well – so, just the with the coloured eyes, the malaria inhibitor gene is also passed through to the offspring.

Esvelt admits that the technology is "astounding", but he does not believe James and his team have used strict enough safety measures, and is calling for a genetic “reversal drive”;

"An accidental release would be a disaster with potentially devastating consequences for public trust in science and especially gene-drive interventions. No gene-drive intervention must ever be released without popular support."

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Another concern since the ground-breaking discovery is that the technology has made headline with the belief that it could be used as a potential “weapon a mass destruction” – as the mosquitoes could potentially be triggered with a fatal toxin.

For now, this has been hailed as utter nonsense, as we should be celebrating the fact that James’ team is potentially a short time away from releasing the next swarm of genetically modified mosquitoes, which could potentially save BILLIONS of lives.

For another astounding medical breakthrough, check out these pigeons that are being trained to spot cancer.

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