Scientists at the University of California at Irvine and and the Pasteur Institute in Paris say they’ve used genetic engineering to create mosquitoes that can’t infect people with malaria. They used Anopheles stephensi mosquito — a major source of malaria in India and the Middle East — but say the technique could be used on dozens of different types of mosquitoes. Malaria parasites picked up by these mosquitoes are killed by the the mosquitoes’ immune systems. So the insects can’t transmit malaria through their bites. The scientists made their announcement on June 17, 2012, and their paper was published in the Proceedings for the National Academy of Sciences.
More than 40 percent of the world’s population lives in areas where there is a risk of contracting malaria. The World Health Organization says there were about 216 million cases of malaria and an estimated 655,000 deaths in 2010. The deaths are largely infants, young children and pregnant women. Most deaths occur among children living in Africa where a child dies every minute from malaria.
Anthony James of UC Irvine said:
Our group has made significant advances with the creation of transgenic mosquitoes But this is the first model of a malaria vector with a genetic modification that can potentially exist in wild populations and be transferred through generations without affecting their fitness.
I did not talk to these scientists, and I have questions. What happens to the mosquitoes already in the wild, which carry the malaria parasite? Do they breed with the genetically modified mosquitoes so that some inherit malaria-killing immune systems? There will be another question for some. Is it wise to release genetically modified mosquitoes into the wild? For the families of children who might die of malaria, the answer is clear: pursue this promising line of research. The rest of us will need to acknowledge that we live in a world where the questions themselves are getting tougher.
Bottom line: Scientists at the University of California at Irvine and and the Pasteur Institute in Paris have used genetic engineering to create mosquitoes whose immune systems kill the malaria parasite. These mosquitoes, then, can’t transmit malaria.
Deborah Byrd created the EarthSky radio series in 1991 and founded EarthSky.org in 1994. Today, she serves as Editor-in-Chief of this website. She has won a galaxy of awards from the broadcasting and science communities, including having an asteroid named 3505 Byrd in her honor. A science communicator and educator since 1976, Byrd believes in science as a force for good in the world and a vital tool for the 21st century. "Being an EarthSky editor is like hosting a big global party for cool nature-lovers," she says.