Scientists have managed to design a mutant strain of mosquito that can help kill off malaria instead of spreading it.
A group of biologists from the University of California San Diego and UC Irvine created the newly helpful insect by introducing genes resistant to the malaria parasite, the researchers reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. In addition to giving the mosquitoes resistance to malaria, the researchers also added a "gene drive" that ensures the resistance is passed down to all future generations.
They were able to do this using the new gene-editing tool called the Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats (CRISPR) system, which gives scientists access to a cell's nucleus to easily snip DNA and either replace mutated genes or insert new ones, a University of California press release explains.
With the new genes in place, these mutant mosquitoes could pass malaria resistance to an entire wild population within 10 generations, or a single season, the New York Times reports. In a world that saw 214 million cases of malaria in the past year and 438,000 deaths from the disease, the edited insects could provide an enormous benefit.
Gene editing is a controversial technique, however, and there is no consensus about the ethical implications of releasing creatures with manipulated DNA into the wild, the Washington Post reports. So for now, these malaria-killing mutants are being held in a securely locked lab.
In the meantime, the UC scientists say further testing is needed to confirm how well the mosquitoes' malaria antibodies work, and that field studies might come in the future.
"This is a significant first step," Anthony James, one of the lead researchers on the team, said in the press release. "We know the gene works. The mosquitoes we created are not the final brand, but we know this technology allows us to efficiently create large populations."