A small and stubborn insect known for buzzing in your ears and ruining camping trips, the mosquito has been named by some the deadliest animal on earth, but not because of its blood-lust.
The impact of these diseases worldwide is astounding. Malaria infected 212 million people in 2015 and killed 429,000, most of them African children under the age of 5. Over 2,000 Americans have died due to West Nile virus since 1999. The Dengue virus, originating along the Gulf Coast and spreading worldwide, infects nearly 100 million people each year, causing nearly half a million to experience the excruciating “break-bone fever” that comes with the infection.
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But what if there was a solution to mosquito-borne diseases?
Scientists and genetic engineers are testing a possible solution that could take away the mosquito’s ability to transfer pathogens to humans without wiping out the insect population. It’s called a “gene drive.”
A gene drive is a modified gene inherited by a creature’s offspring, their offspring’s offspring, and so on until every individual of a species has that modified gene. Genetic engineers can insert this modified gene into the embryo of a mosquito, a technique that has already been tested in yeast, fruit flies, and mosquitoes.
The gene drive scientists are testing could prevent mosquitoes from transferring pathogens like malaria and West Nile virus to humans. Scientists are also suggesting the gene drive technique could be used in white-footed mice that carry Lyme disease.
But there’s a catch: what if a mistake in the lab — or the gene drive itself — alters the entire species into something more dangerous? If that mosquito carrying a potentially harmful genetic trait was released into the wild before scientists deemed it safe, more people could become sick or die. Similarly, the technique could even be used for biowarfare.
This is what Dr. Kevin Esvelt, the scientist who thought of introducing the genetic drive into mosquito embryos, worried about in an interview with Mother Jones.
“There was a flash of pure terror, followed by an obsessive evaluation of potential misuses,” he said.
That’s why Esvelt decided not to test it right away, but instead present his idea to the public. His team presented their theory before other scientists, policymakers, national security experts and environmental protection groups before publishing their study the implications of a gene drive in 2014.
This summer, Esvelt and his team successfully tested an “immunizing reversal drive” that would reverse the original gene drive if scientists see anything wrong with its progression.
A malaria gene drive could be ready within two years, according to another scientist testing the technology at the University of California — Irvine. While the gene drive could not completely eliminate malaria alone, it could nearly eliminate the mosquito population that transmits the disease and prevent millions from falling ill to the infection.
If successful, this technology could improve the health and lives of the hundreds of million people around the world affected by mosquito-borne pathogens and other disease. And with climate change threatening to accelerate the rate of mosquito-borne pathogens, according to a new study, the technology comes at a critical time.
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