Mosquitoes spread malaria. These researchers want them to fight it instead

Researchers are turning mosquitoes into allies against malaria using genetic engineering, offering a radical shift from traditional methods that typically aim to control mosquito populations.

Novel approach: Anthony James and his team at the University of California are engineering mosquitoes to fight against malaria, rather than transmit it.
* Traditional methods of malaria control have emphasized limiting mosquito populations, a solution that James considers temporary due to the insects’ resilience.
* Instead, James is focusing on making mosquitoes inhospitable to the malaria parasite, essentially converting them into “malaria-fighting warriors.”

How it works: The research team leverages the gene-editing technique CRISPR to equip mosquitoes with malaria-fighting genes.
* They extracted genes from mice, which naturally fend off human malaria, and inserted these into mosquitoes.
* The result is a genetically-altered mosquito that produces malaria-blocking antibodies, particularly in the salivary gland where parasites would be before transmission to humans.

State of play: This genetically modified mosquito was successful in reducing the number of parasites and produced a scalable result.
* The mice genes proved successful as they “worked very well” reducing the parasites inside the mosquitoes according to the data published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
* The researchers’ technique also enables the engineered genes to spread rapidly; a relatively small number of altered mosquitoes could fan out and pass their genetic code across larger wild populations.

Yes, but: The project has sparked controversy, particularly among environmentalists.
* Critics like Dana Perls from the non-profit group Friends of the Earth argue that genetically altering wild creatures like mosquitoes poses unnecessary risks, particularly when existing methods and a new vaccine are showing promise against malaria.
* James disagrees, arguing that gene alterations carry low risks and would only impact the mosquitoes’ response to malaria, turning it into a “sustainable technology” compared to temporary measures such as sprays and treatments.

What’s next: James and his team are now planning a field trial, potentially to be conducted on an isolated location such as an island.

View original article on NPR

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