Scientists at the University of Arizona have managed to genetically engineer a breed of mosquito that can’t transmit malaria to humans.
According to the LA Times, researchers were able to modify a single gene in the mosquitoes that led to 100% blockage of the parasite that causes malaria. This is a big breakthrough for researchers who are determined to find a way to eliminate malaria, which kills nearly a million people every year.
At this point the genetically engineered mosquitoes are far from ready to be taken into the field; there are still a lot of details to work out. The first and most practical issue is that introducing these mosquitoes into the wild will be ineffective unless they are also endowed with some genetic advantage that allows them to supplant the native breed of mosquitoes. This would be crucial to spreading the malaria-stopping gene to the entire population.
The second issue is one that has been bothering me since I first read this article — is it right to genetically engineer a species for the sole purpose of benefiting ours? And what are the consequences for the ecosystem that this species will be introduced into?
Generally speaking I am distrustful of genetic engineering. I find it difficult to believe that human beings with a 75 year life span can grow a species in a lab that is somehow “better” or more properly adapted than one that has evolved for millions of years in its environment. Also, our vision is pretty impaired when it comes to how a small, genetic modification in a mosquito that stops malaria — and coincidentally shortens a mosquito’s life span by 20 percent — might be a game changer on the macro scale. Mosquitoes are such an important link in the food chain that no amount of lab testing is going to give the researchers a 100 percent accurate idea of how the genetic changes are going to affect the ecosystem.
The researchers have acknowledged that the genetically modified mosquitoes aren’t going to be a magic bullet for the malaria problem, but rather “another tool in the toolbox” along with vaccines.
I stand by the fact that I don’t support animal testing for any purpose, and I don’t condone genetic engineering. I have never been an “ends justify the means” type of person, but it’s also not easy to overlook a million deaths a year from malaria. I guess all we can really do is cross our fingers.
Photo: Public Domain. Credit: James Gathany, Via CDC PHIL