Mutant Mosquitoes!

“U.K. scientists are genetically modifying mosquitoes to be resistant to malaria, which kills millions annually. But some experts fear these Supermosquitoes would upset the ecosystem.”

Scientists in U.K. are genetically modifying thousands of mosquitoes in the hope of wiping out malaria. The mosquitoes are being stacked in net covered cages and humid lavatories in Imperial College, London. They are being scrutinized because it is thought that they may hold the keys to controlling malaria. The idea of playing with the mosquito biology does sound far fetched but it is gaining popularity. Health officials, scared of losing the battle against malaria, are increasingly exploring any innovations that might give them an edge. Dr. Andrea Crisanti, the principal investigator of this project, says a new approach is needed. He says that they are looking for a different approach to control malaria. According to him, it is time they used something other than insecticides. Rather than eliminating mosquitoes with insecticides, he aims at replacing the endogenous mosquito with mosquitoes that are very similar to the endogenous mosquitoes. Also, the mosquitoes will be modified in such a way that they are resistant to the malaria parasite.

Malaria kills nearly three million people worldwide every year, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa. The population has been suffering from this illness since a very long time. Millions of bed nets have been handed out, and villages across the continent have been doused with insecticide. However, these measures do not seem to have put a significant dent in malaria cases. Malaria and mosquitoes have become a menace and it is extremely important to eradicate them now. Although some scientists do think that creating mutant mosquitoes resistant to the disease might work better, not everyone has the same opinion. Those against this idea say that genetically created mosquitoes might create havoc in the eco system. Faced with a losing battle against malaria, scientists are increasingly exploring new avenues that might have seemed far-fetched just a few years ago.

The newspapers and channels say that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has found the work so promising it has invested nearly $38 million into genetic strategies to stop mosquitoes from transmitting diseases like malaria and dengue fever. According to them, this is one of those high-tech, high risk innovations that would fundamentally change the struggle between humans and mosquitoes. This project, according to them, will prove to be immensely successful and they have pinned their hopes on it. And then there is the reality that millions fighting with the menace are waiting to be rescued. Africa, mostly associated with the wild, is the most infected place too. The scientists believe that if this project succeeds in making mosquitoes immune to malaria, it could break the disease’s transmission cycle.

The sources say that in the year 2005, Dr. Andrea Crisanti proved that it was possible to create a genetically modified mosquito by inserting a gene that glowed fluorescent green in males. Among other possibilities, he and his team are now planning to create sterile male mosquitoes to mate with wild female mosquitoes, thus stunting population growth. They are also trying to engineer a malaria-resistant mosquito. Of course, the mosquitoes will have to be bred in billions. Last year, American researchers created mosquitoes resistant to a type of malaria that infects mice. Others are altering the DNA of the mosquitoes that spread dengue.

Scientists are toiling day and night to combat the problem of malaria and are busy tackling with the loop holes in the project, but not everyone thinks that these super mosquitoes are such a good idea. Some scientists think there are too many genetic puzzles to be solved for modified mosquitoes to work. The technical know-how is immense and tricky. The malaria-causing parasite, which mosquitoes then transmit to humans, is simply too good at evading anything that scientists might devise to protect the mosquito. The consequences are unknown but most are contemplating the hazardous results it could produce. The scientists surely acknowledge that there might be unintended consequences of releasing genetically modified mosquitoes into the wild, although they are not able to predict what they might be. The breeding of these mosquitoes and the application of the technology might sound like a Herculean task, which it surely is, but it will bring forth both positive and negative results.

Some who are against this technology say that the mutant mosquitoes will only interrupt with the parts of the eco system. Gillian Madill, a genetic technologies campaigner at Friends of the Earth in Washington, says that people have been using a very basic technology since a very long time that works. These are the mosquito nets. They are extremely cheap and are proven to work. They are not complicated and they do not interfere with any part of the eco system. They say that if nets could only be supplied in abundance to the people in the infected areas, it would prove to be a much better solution, a more holistic solution than creating mutant mosquitoes which will only play with the environment.

“After a string of failed initiatives, the United Nations recently announced a campaign to provide bed nets to anyone who needs them by 2010.”

What we cannot ignore is the fact that mosquitoes do not just transmit malaria, but they are also the food for birds, bats, fish, etc. and it is important for birds and bats as they pollinate crops. By eradicating the endogenous mosquitoes, the food chain of the animals will also be disturbed. The food chain forms one of the most important parts of the environmental cycle.

According to Dr. Tony Nolan, a scientist researching in Imperial College, London, too much use of insecticides is also a common problem. New insecticides or devices have to be invented to target the disease in a whole new different approach. According to him, Trans-genesis is one of these.

‘The malaria parasite has always won’ as the scientists say. Whenever mosquitoes have developed genes resistant to the malaria-causing parasite, the parasite has always found a way around it. Mutant mosquitoes will have to be produced in abundance to counteract the wild ones. Billions of mosquitoes will have to be produced to combat the problem to actually bring results. This might prove hazardous too, because if it fails, it will be another menace which will have to be countered, which might not be an easy task. Before finalizing the project and finally executing it, the scientists say that rigorous testing would be done before releasing any genetically modified mosquitoes into the wild. In the next year, Dr. Crisanti hopes to finalize plans for a test release of genetically modified mosquitoes in southern Italy. There, millions of the insects will be set loose in large cages to determine things like how they might interact with wild mosquitoes and how many would be needed to knock out malaria. If it succeeds the scientists will move ahead with a larger portion of the land mass.

In contradiction to the whole affair of scientific developments and gadgets backed by equally high technology, some scientists say that it is not nice to play with Mother Nature. It is important other innovations and research is also done before going ahead with a plan that sounds destructive and extremely far fetched.

But at the same time, we cannot ignore the fact that our world history boasts of some of the most far fetched scientific achievements which have become a part and parcel of our daily lives. I think it is important to go ahead with a totally new and unthinkable project sometimes, because if we do this right, the mosquitoes will get rid of malaria for us. we need to be watchful, but positive at the same time. With the ever increasing burden of malaria, and millions of people dying from this disease and other related mosquito diseases, the estimates are that it is a risk worth taking.

I think am up for it.

Aditi Raman

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