Using Biotechnology to Tackle Deadly Mosquito-Borne Illnesses

______________________________________________________________________________________________

Every year, nearly a million deaths are attributed to mosquito-borne illnesses and 500 million people are infected with a disease transmitted by mosquitos.

Fortunately, scientists are working to develop techniques that could help address mosquito-related diseases like malaria, West Nile, and Zika.

Just this week, researchers at the University of Arizona (UA) discovered an approach that could act as a “mosquito birth control” and reduce mosquito populations where disease transmission is prevalent without harming other insects in the ecosystem.

By identifying a unique protein that exists only in mosquitos and is used in the process of producing eggs, the team of researchers was able to block the activity of the protein. The result: mosquitos produced defective eggs, and the eggs never hatched into larvae.

Roger Miesfeld, head of the UA’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, highlighted the importance of this breakthrough with UANews:

“We think this strategy may have a much lower chance of harming other organisms than what is being used today,” Miesfeld says. “Since the days of DDT, we have known that mosquito population control works to reduce the incidence of human disease. This could be a next-generation tool that could be applied to bed nets and other areas frequented by mosquitoes.”

[…]

“The inhibitors currently available to control mosquitoes have been used for so long that the pests are becoming resistant to them,” Miesfeld says. “Our idea is to knock their populations down to a level where you can break the cycle of disease transmission between mosquitoes and humans.”

Another effort, currently underway by Target Malaria, is exploring gene editing as an option to tackle the deadly disease directly at the source: the three species of female African mosquitos that are responsible for most malaria transmissions.

Target Malaria researchers are working to identify and cut fertility genes or genes key to transmission in the female malaria mosquitos. The mosquitos would eventually pass the edited genes onto their offspring, creating a self-sustaining modification that would reduce the malaria mosquito population.

Using genetic engineering, Oxitec’s “Friendly™ Mosquitoes” are male Aedes aegypti mosquitoes that carry a “self-limiting” gene. When Friendly™ Mosquitoes mate with wild females, their offspring inherit a copy of this gene, that prevents them surviving to adulthood, reducing the wild pest population. Pilot projects in Brazil, Panama and the Cayman Islands have suppressed wild populations by more than 80% relative to an untreated area – a level of control greater than that typically achieved with insecticides.

Addressing mosquito-borne illnesses is one of the most pressing challenges our world faces, and the biotechnology industry continues to lead the way in developing innovative methods that could save countless lives and reduce disease transmission.