Research groups have already created “malaria-resistant mosquitoes” using techniques such as introducing genes to disrupt the malaria parasite’s development.
The research, however, has a great challenge – getting those genes to spread from the genetically-modified mosquitoes to the vast number of wild insects across the globe.
Unless the gene gives the mosquito an advantage, the gene will likely disappear.
Scientists at Imperial College London and the University of Washington, in Seattle, believe they have found a solution.
They inserted a gene into the mosquito DNA which is very good at looking after its own interests – a homing endonuclease called I-SceI.
The gene makes an enzyme which cuts the DNA in two. The cell’s repair machinery then uses the gene as a template when repairing the cut.
As a result the homing endonuclease gene is copied.
It does this in such a way that all the sperm produced by a male mosquito carry the gene.
The idea is really fairly elegant. And getting mosquitos that disrupted the transmission of malaria would be a pretty wonderful idea (even if the cost of the research would probably buy a year’s worth of bed tents for the entire continent).
And yet a tool that guarantees an inserted gene — any inserted gene — will spread fairly rapidly throughout an entire reproductively connected insect population makes me feel just the tiniest bit nervous. Like the biological equivalent of grey goo.