Malaria proof mosquito
Now for the first time, University of Arizona entomologists have succeeded in genetically altering mosquitoes in a way that renders them completely immune to the parasite, a single-celled organism called Plasmodium. Someday researchers hope to replace wild mosquitoes with lab-bred populations unable to act as vectors, i.e. transmit the malaria-causing parasite.
The researchers targeted one of the many biochemical pathways inside the mosquito’s cells. Specifically, they engineered a piece of genetic code acting as a molecular switch in the complex control of metabolic functions inside the cell. The genetic construct acts like a switch that is always set to “on,” leading to the permanent activity of a signaling enzyme called Akt. Akt functions as a messenger molecule in several metabolic functions, including larval development, immune response and lifespan.
“The eradication scenario requires three things: A gene that disrupts the development of the parasite inside the mosquito, a genetic technique to bring that gene into the mosquito genome and a mechanism that gives the modified mosquito an edge over the natural populations so they can displace them over time.”
“The third requirement is going to be the most difficult of the three to realize,” he added, which is why his team decided to tackle the other two first.
At this point, the modified mosquitoes exist in a highly secured lab environment with no chance of escape. Once researchers find a way to replace wild mosquito populations with lab-bred ones, breakthroughs like the one achieved by Riehle’s group could pave the way toward a world in which malaria is all but history.
Promise of genetically modified food, mosquitoes or anything else, while there are great benefits, do come with dangers all of which may not be understood until it’s too late. I do hope sufficient research will be done before these mosquitoes are released.
What dangers could possibly result? I am not sure, but could this mosquito become more susceptible to other parasites (like west-nile virus)? For now I am happy it’s still contained in the lab.