Mosquitoes aren’t just a pest that will nibble on you when you’re trying to fall asleep in the summer. They are by far the deadliest animals on the planet. According to the World Health Organization, a million people die from mosquito bites every year. Most of these are the result of malaria, one of the many human illnesses these tiny bloodsuckers can carry.
Because of this, scientists trying to fight these diseases have explored a number of possible solutions – for example, gene drives, which refer to tiny fragments of DNA that can be inserted into a mosquito’s chromosomes to deplete populations in various ways .
But if original SyFy films taught us anything, it is that genetically modified organisms and their release … well, not quite as planned.
With this in mind, a new Texas A&M AgriLife research project is trying to test genetic changes in mosquitoes that would erase themselves from the genetic code after a certain period of time. This means that “test runs” of genetic changes could be carried out, knowing that after a set period of time such as a year (which corresponds to about 20 generations of mosquitoes) everything will return to normal.
“Instead of developing a new way of doing a gene drive, this is ours [project] provides a way to modify existing gene drive approaches to make them more temporary, ”Zach Adelman, professor in the Department of Entomology at Texas A&M University, told Digital Trends. “Other approaches to removing genetically engineered pests are based either on the release of a second wave of genetically modified or unmodified pests or on the manipulated sequences simply breaking down on their own.”
The problem with these two approaches is that the former is not very practical (“If something goes wrong during the release of gene-propelled pests, it is likely not possible for the same group of scientists to release a different version to control the first. Said.” Adelman), while the latter would take too long. This project could circumvent this and thereby reduce the risk of genetic modification without having to limit the necessary experiments.
However, you may be waiting a little longer for this theoretical project to become a reality. “We’re just beginning a five-year project to demonstrate our biodegradable approach,” said Adelman. “This strategy is based on the insect’s DNA repair machinery. This is our first step: determine some of the parameters the insect will use to decide when to repair DNA damage, using machines that will remove our constructed sequences as opposed to other machines that will stain the broken ends . “
He noted that, should all go according to plan, the first set of experimental findings on this issue could be published in 2021. A research report describing this initiative was recently published in the Royal Society B’s Philosophical Transactions journal.