Easily one of the most dangerous mosquitoes on earth, Aedes aegypti is infamous for wreaking havoc on humanity. It’s a known carrier of yellow fever, dengue, chikungunya, and Zika viruses. But scientists are discovering that the way to protect the world from these disease-carrying insects is to fight fire with fire. Or, in this instance, a mosquito with a mosquito.
The British biotechnology firm Oxitec is genetically engineering these mosquitos to become turncoats; as a result, the Benedict Aedes aegypti are running down their population with shocking efficiency. One study done throughout 2018 and 2019 said that the engineered mosquitoes reduced the Aedes aegypti populations, where they were released by nearly 96 percent compared to the control neighborhoods.
The sleeper cell mosquitos carry a unique self-limiting gene that prevents female offspring from surviving. Each modified male was released into the wild and mated with females, spreading the gene further. The lab-engineered gene was based on elements found in the herpes simplex virus and E. coli. It inhibits the new females from producing essential proteins to grow and develop. Eventually, these females die off – before they can become a menace to humans. The male offspring survive but inevitably pass on the gene, refreshing the cycle.
Curiously, how many mosquitos were released seemed to have little effect on this method. It was much more critical that there were more modified male mosquitoes than wild ones. Scientists believe they can continue to reduce the number of mosquitoes they release and still have good results.
Genetic modification could help many countries that rely on insecticides to keep their people safe. Brazil, for example, sprayed large amounts of DDT in the 1950s and found that most of the Aedes aegypti population was eradicated. But high exposure to insecticides like DDT can cause health problems for humans. Insecticides also produce environmental risks, while releasing the modified mosquitoes does not.
Still, with studies in their infancy, scientists are cautious about the results. The hope is that field trials can be done over extended periods to get more accurate information. Unfortunately, this method requires releases over time, while insecticides are sprayed once every season. Male mosquitoes only have a seven to ten-day lifespan. Because the self-limiting trait will become less prevalent over time, more releases have to happen to keep up.
Eradicating these disease-carrying mosquitoes still seems like a work of fiction for now. And should it happen, it doesn’t mean that the world is safe from those diseases. But clever use of genetic engineering is getting us closer and closer to solving an incredibly pervasive and complex problem. Scientists hope that this will lower the number of people infected with these dangerous diseases.
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Written for Passport Health by CJ Darnieder. CJ is a freelance writer and editor in Chicago. He is an avid lover of classical music and stand-up comedy and loves to write both in his spare time.