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Genetically Modified Mosquitoes to Combat Mosquito-Related Diseases

3 percent of all humans on Earth or 187 million to 222 million people were infected by malaria / Photo by Achkin via Shutterstock

 

In 2015, between 438,000 and 720,000 people were killed by the malaria parasite and 72 percent of those were kids younger than 5, and nearly 90 percent were from sub-Saharan Africa. Likewise, Vox reported that 3 percent of all humans on Earth or 187 million to 222 million people were infected by malaria.

Recently, scientists have made a huge news after they made a new kind of genetically engineering that is believed to help in preventing a disease that has been ravaging the human population. According to National Public Radio, scientists from Imperial College London made a self-destructive genetic modification that could wipe out the disease-bearing mosquitoes by using a revolutionary gene-editing tool called, CRISPR to engineer mosquitoes with a “gene drive”, which could be used to transmit a sterilizing mutation through other members of the mosquito species.

 

Nature Asia also reported that the new gene drive could completely collapse the malaria-carrying mosquito population since gene drives are built to spread specific genes throughout a population within a few generations by biasing inheritance of the genes in offspring. CRISPR-based gene drives can transmit specific genes to 99% of offspring compared to the 50% transmission rate which is expected for a regular gene. It is designed to reduce the female mosquito fertility which was previously shown to spread in caged insects and reduce the size of their population.

Professor Andrea Crisanti, who co-led the research, says the gene drive is a technical solution that allows a genetic modification to be spread from a few individuals to an entire population. “So in this way a genetic female, if you destroy this gene it cannot develop into a female, but develop into something between a male and female that we call ‘intersex.’ These individuals cannot bite, which is very good, cannot lay eggs and so cannot reproduce itself.”

The fight against malaria

After 15 years, the scientists from the Imperial College of London have finally succeeded in making the concept of the “gene drive” to be a lot more possible. Scientists Austin Burt and Andrea Crisanti used CRISPR to wipe out caged cohorts of the malaria-touting mosquitoes called, Anopheles Gambiae. The result is the representation of the first-ever annihilation of a population of animals using a gene drive. The London researchers exploited a critical gene without any flexibility for spontaneously mutating its way around the drive. “This is the first time we’ve shown that we can, in principle, manipulate the fate of an entire species,” says Crisanti.

Bill Gates is one of the supporters of Target Malaria which is currently working with much more limited genetic engineering techniques / Photo by Kuhlmann via Wikimedia Commons

 

In 2011, the researchers teamed up with other institutions such as Burkina Faso Uganda, to have field sites which they could use to test-malaria-eradicating gene drive in the wild. The Wired also reported that one of the supporters of this groundbreaking work is the Microsoft founder, Bill Gates, which could make the Gates-backed project called, Target Malaria to apply for a permit to conduct a field-test using the Imperial College’s CRISPR induced mosquitoes.

Moreover, Target Malaria is a research consortium uniting Imperial College London with partner institutions in Burkina Faso, Mali, Uganda, and Ghana. It is currently working with much more limited genetic engineering techniques that aim to fight the disease. The science behind the tool, while not quite ready for release, is very, very, very close. Ethan Bier, a professor at UC San Diego and one of the first people to help build an actual working CRISPR gene drive stressed that the gene drive shouldn’t be released without regulatory approval and without having much consideration.

What is CRISPR?

CRISPR is an abbreviation of “Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats” which is a term that was used first at a time when the origin and function of these subsequences were not known and were assumed to be prokaryotic in origin.

Just like what mentioned earlier, CRISPR is a technology that could end malaria. It also refers to a sequence of naturally occurring bacterial DNA that biochemists Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier transformed, in conjunction with the Cas9 enzyme, into a wildly powerful gene editing tool. CRISPR is a family of DNA sequences which are found within the genomes of prokaryotic organisms such as bacteria and archaea. These sequences are derived from DNA fragments from viruses that have previously infected the prokaryote and are used to detect and destroy DNA from similar viruses during subsequent infections.

Live Science also added that the CRISPR technology was adapted from the natural defense mechanisms of bacteria and archaea and these organisms use CRISPR-derived RNA and various Cas proteins, including Cas9, to foil attacks by viruses and other foreign bodies. When the components are transferred into other, more complex, organisms, it allows for the manipulation of genes, or “editing”.

Furthermore, CRISPR technology has also been applied in the food and agricultural industries to engineer probiotic cultures and to vaccinate industrial cultures against viruses. It is also being used in crops to improve yield, drought tolerance, and natural properties.

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