By altering just a single strand of DNA, scientists could stop the spread of malaria. In 2020, malaria caused an estimated 241 million clinical episodes and 627,000 deaths. This disease is particularly deadly to young children and pregnant women. Though there have been management methods and a vaccine until now there has not been any permanent method to eliminate malaria. In a groundbreaking study, published on July 28th, 2021, researchers put genetically modified mosquitoes in a laboratory that simulated the conditions in sub-Saharan Africa to see if they could add a DNA strand to cause the self-destruction of the population.
The researcher Ruth Müller uses CRISPR. This is a technique in which DNA is genetically modified through precise changes. In the case of mosquitoes, the CRISPR modifies the Anopheles Gambiae of the species. This modification is known as “doublesex” and it deforms the mouth of the mosquito which makes it unable to bite and spread the parasite. Additionally, for females, it deforms them so they cannot lay eggs. This mutation of the DNA would theoretically spread throughout the mosquito population. Some researchers believe that this experiment is very important and could help decrease the spread of malaria or other vector-borne diseases.
A concern of this experiment was that the destruction of the mosquito population could disrupt the balance of the surrounding ecosystems. Therefore, researchers went through extreme precautions during this experiment to make sure that none of the modified mosquitoes escaped the facility. The researchers made a special high-security lab in Italy to keep the mosquitos inside. Despite these precautions, many scientists are skeptical of the research. They believe that the risk to the ecosystem is too great and that this kind of genetically modified engineering is unethical.
Though there are conflicting opinions for and against genetically modifying mosquitoes, this study has opened the door to more genetic modification and the possibility of eradicating vector-borne diseases.