The new breed of insects carry two ingenious genetic tweaks that can both help mosquitoes gain immunity to the disease and help them ‘immunize’ other mosquitoes.
Researchers explained that they were able to alter a set of genes so that the insect’s immune system releases powerful antibodies to the malarial parasite, making insects nearly immune to it.
But the team didn’t stop here. They modified another set of genes into a ‘gene drive’ so that the ‘special’ mosquitoes can transfer the malaria-resistant genes to entire mosquito populations.
For instance, if a genetically modified mosquito mates with a common female mosquito the gene drive can transfer genes that provide malaria resistance from the male’s chromosomes to the female’s chromosomes.
Because nearly all offspring will have the new genes, the malaria resistant genes should spread like wildfires throughout wild mosquito populations. Researchers expect this to happen in 10 generations, which can happen in a single season.
This is how Irvine scientists plan to clear large areas of the tropical disease which is responsible for the death of nearly 600,000 people every year worldwide.
A research paper on the new technique was published Nov. 23 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The technique, which has been in the works for more than 15 years, may soon help epidemiologists eradicate not only malaria but also dengue fever and other mosquito-borne diseases.
“This is a very important advance in the field of mosquito biology,”
said George Dimopoulos, a Johns Hopkins researcher who has also experimented with genetically modified mosquitoes in the past.
Two members of the research team explained that they were able to design the gene drive in a fruit fly experiment. In that experiment, researchers realized that with help from the gene drive they can pass on beneficial genes to all fruit fly offspring in no time.
Next, they wondered what practical uses the discovery may have. So, their eureka moment was when they came across a 2012 article that proposed using genetically engineered mosquitoes to ward off malaria.
At that time, Anthony A. James, the author of the 2012 paper and co-author of the recently published study, was looking for a ‘mechanism that would help anti-malaria genes spread faster. As a result, years later Prof. James was contacted by the two researchers who already had developed one such mechanism for the latest collaboration.
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