Genetically Engineered Mosquitos Battle Dengue

July 19, 2012 at 11:23 pm Leave a comment

The Mosquito Solution (The New Yorker, Annals of Science, 2012 July 9 & 16, paywall) describes scientific efforts to combat dengue fever by eradicating the carrier, the Aedes aegypti mosquito, using genetically engineered males. Briefly, scientists have modified males so that their offspring will die before the latter can breed. This is a new wrinkle on the old “sterile male” weapon which involved releasing hordes of sterilized male insects to compete with fertile males and reduce the number of offspring in the next generation.

The article also mentions some of the “push back” that has materialized. Some of the concerns from “anti-GM mosquito” environmentalists include: What consequences are there for an ecosystem if efforts to eradicate a mosquito species are completely successful? What might happen if a genetically modified female bites a mammal (like me) and transfers some of this “foreign” genetic material into the mammal’s (my) bloodstream? (Note: although it is easy to separate male and female mosquitoes prior to genetic modification, no separation procedure is perfect so a batch of GM mosquitoes contains one modified female for every 3000 modified males.)

These are important concerns, but the article points out that governments are currently trying to eradicate the mosquito using chemical insecticides, and a dengue-infected female (which is essentially a “naturally occurring GM mosquito”) injects dengue fever virus DNA into its victim.

There is no cure or treatment for dengue fever. Fortunately, it is rarely fatal. The World Health Organization estimates that 50 million or more people get infected each year and that over a half million (roughly 1 in 100) become seriously ill. Although the PubMed Health page does not list the U.S. as a location for the disease, there have been outbreaks in Key West, Florida in recent years.


Entry filed under: In the News.

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