They might be tiny, but mosquitoes cause millions of deaths every year by spreading diseases like malaria and dengue. Now, new research suggests we could wipe the destructive buggers off the map using a genetic engineering technique known as a gene drive — if we’re willing to risk permanently altering our ecosystem.
A gene drive lets researchers make a change to one organism that it then passes down to its offspring, like a genetic time bomb. Using the technique, researchers from Imperial College London completely wiped out a caged population of Anopheles gambiae, the mosquito species that spreads malaria in sub-Saharan Africa.
For their study, published Monday in the journal Nature Biotechnology, the researchers used CRISPR to modify the gene responsible for determining sex in 150 male mosquitoes. That alteration made the male gene dominant — the idea was, over time, that the population would stop producing females, driving them to collapse.
The researchers added these genetically altered mosquitoes to a caged population of 450 unaltered male and female mosquitoes to reproduce with them. The hack worked: Subsequent generations of females exhibited male and female characteristics, couldn’t bite, and couldn’t lay eggs. By the eighth generation, there were no longer any females in the population at all.
This is the first time scientists have seen a gene drive effectively suppress an entire population.
But knowing that the technology works is only one part of the battle. We also need to figure out whether it could cause any unintended side effects if it’s unleashed outside the lab.
Unfortunately, that’s something we might not be able to figure out until we actually give the tech a shot in the wild — which Andrea Crisanti, the lead researcher in the Imperial College study, said in a press release probably won’t happen for another five to 10 years.