Genetic changes to mosquitoes could end malaria

Scientists at Imperial College London and the University of Washington - Seattle have published a study demonstrating how genetic changes could be introduced to mosquito populations to prevent the spread of malaria.

Using just a small number of modified mosquitoes, the scientists were able to introduce genetic changes to a large laboratory mosquito population, reports. This might aid scientists in the future to introduce this change into the wild to prevent the spread of the deadly malaria parasite to humans.

"This is an exciting technological development, one which I hope will pave the way for solutions to many global health problems,” Andrea Cristanti, senior author of the study and a professor from the Department of Life Sciences at Imperial College London, said, according to “It demonstrates significant potential to control these disease-carrying mosquitoes. We expect to conduct many more experiments to determine its safety and reliability.”

The scientists bred mosquitoes with a green fluorescent gene as a marker to be easily viewed in experiments and then let them mingle and mate with a small number of mosquitoes that had DNA coding for an enzyme that would inactivate the fluorescent gene. In 12 generations, more than half of the mosquitoes had lost the green marker genes. This suggests a similar technique could be used to propagate a genetic change in a wild mosquito population.

"In our mosquitoes the homing endonuclease gene is only passed on, through reproduction, directly to the carrier's offspring,” Dr. Nikolai Windbichler, the lead author on the paper and a professor from Imperial’s Department of Life Sciences, said, reports. “This makes for a uniquely safe biological control measure that will not affect even very closely related mosquito species."

The scientists hope that these advances can curb malaria cases. There are over 300 million per year and about 800,000 deaths annually.

"Malaria is still a terrible disease,” Austin Burt, another senior author on the study and a professor from the Department of Life Sciences at Imperial College London, said, reports. “There are around 3,500 species of mosquito in the world, but only a few of them transmit the deadly malaria parasite, Plasmodium falciparum. This technology allows us to focus exclusively on controlling these most dangerous species."