Breeding Malaria Out: Scientists Engineer Mosquitos to Spread Antimalaria Genes

These little insects could soon be superheroes!
Loukia Papadopoulos

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), malaria is a "serious and sometimes fatal disease caused by a parasite that commonly infects a certain type of mosquito which feeds on humans."

There are four types of malaria parasites: Plasmodium falciparum, P. vivax, P. ovale, and P. malariae with P. falciparum being the one most likely to result in death. But what if these mosquitos could be genetically altered to spread antimalaria genes instead of the disease? That would be nothing short of a miracle.

Researchers from Imperial College London have successfully altered a mosquito’s gut genes to make them spread antimalarial genes to the next generation of their species. This innovation may result in curbing malaria once and for all.

This is especially important as the parasite that causes malaria has been becoming increasingly resistant to antimalarial drugs.

“To finally eradicate malaria, we need to explore many new approaches, and this could be one of them. Reducing the ability of mosquitoes to pass on the parasite responsible for the disease could have a significant impact," professor George Christophides, from the Department of Life Sciences at Imperial, said.

Further safety testing required

"We would of course need to rigorously test the safety and effectiveness of the technique before releasing any genetically modified mosquitoes into an area in the wild.”

This new advancement consists of a gene modification that essentially ‘hijacks’ a functional gene in the mosquito to produce the antimalarial molecules. The scientists now plan to use Cas9 to further enhance it.

The researchers further assure the public that these genetic modifications will only be released once they are proven to be safe.

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“When we think they are effective and safe, and we thus want them to start behaving like a real gene drive we just have to combine them with one that is already driving on its own using the Cas9 component," Dr. Nikolai Windbichler, from the Department of Life Sciences at Imperial, said.

“Once we do this, they turn into gene drives themselves without the need for any further changes. Our approach thus brings gene drives one step closer to being tested in the field as a malaria elimination strategy.”

Previous endeavors in the field

This isn't the first time scientists have tried to engineer safer mosquitoes. Two 2018 studies investigated non-biting mosquito populations to find ways to curb blood cravings in biting mosquitoes. 

The new study is published in eLife.

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