Combating mosquito-borne illnesses with self-extinguishing genes

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Did you know that mosquitoes kill at least 725,000 people every year? They really are one of the deadliest animals in the world, which is why scientists from around the world are trying to find new ways to deal with them.

One way is to control mosquito populations and prevent them from sometimes transmitting diseases through genetic engineering. Now, a new Texas A&M AgriLife research project has plans to enable “test runs” of the proposed changes to mosquitoes that will be automatically deleted from their genetic code.

Control of genetic changes

Researchers in the past have used genetic engineering to modify mosquitoes so that they pass on infertility, cannot grow wings, cannot spread malaria, or have an impaired odor. However, as New Atlas reports, this type of change can have deleterious consequences that may not be reversible if released into the wild.

Texas A & M’s new AgriLife research project aims to ensure that these genetic changes are automatically erased after a while.

Zach Adelman, Ph.D., a lead investigator on the project, said, “People are wary of transgenes spreading uncontrollably in the environment. We believe our strategy may prevent this from happening. The idea is: Can we program a transgene to remove itself? Then the gene will not persist in the environment. “

Three possible ways

After evaluating three possible ways to achieve this goal, the researchers decided to focus on one that uses a method by which all animals repair damaged DNA. The project’s proposal is to introduce a “gene drive”, a genetic component designed to force the spread of modified genes in a population, along with a DNA-cutting enzyme and a small replica of the insect’s own DNA.

In theory, the researchers believe that once the introduced enzyme cuts the DNA, the mosquito’s repair tools will take action and cut out the genes and other sequences that drive the genes.

The team has already started testing various gene drives to see how a gene drive spreads in a laboratory insect population. They expect the added genes to go away after a few generations.

The project will be funded with $ 3.9 million over the next five years from the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases for the development of self-extinguishing genetic engineering.

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“We assigned different failure rates to determine how often the mechanism did not work as expected,” says Adelman. “The models predict that even with a very high failure rate, if it is successful only 5% of the time, it will still be sufficient.” get rid of the transgene. “

The first results were published in Royal Society B Philosophical Transactions entitled “Making Gene Drive Biodegradable”.

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