Genetically Modified Mosquitoes Designed To Eradicate Malaria Could Save Lives In Africa

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Written by Peter Pedroncelli
Malaria
Italian researchers funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation are working on genetically modified mosquitoes that could save lives in Africa. In this Oct. 30, 2009, file photo, a mother holds her baby receiving a new malaria vaccine as part of a trial at the Walter Reed Project Research Center in Kombewa in Western Kenya. Image: AP Photo/Karel Prinsloo, File

Italian researchers funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation have genetically modified mosquitoes in the hopes of reducing or eradicating malaria, according to Nerdist.

Sub-Saharan Africa has the highest incidence of malaria in the world. here were 219 million cases of malaria in 2017, resulting in 435,000 deaths, World Health Organization statistics showed. In 2017, 92 percent of cases and 93 percent of malaria-related deaths happened in Africa.

Total funding for malaria control and elimination reached an estimated $3.1 billion in 2017.

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Mosquitoes spread malaria, Zika virus, dengue fever, yellow fever and West Nile virus.

Italian scientists at the Ruth Muller Lab in Terni, Italy intend to introduce a mosquito with DNA that would make non-genetically modified mosquitos sterile, Nerdist reports.

Female gene-drive (genetically modified) mosquitoes will retain the same sex at birth, but some traits are expected to resemble that of the male, according to Techtimes.

Affected female mosquitoes are expected to have mouths similar to the male of the species, which means they will not be able to bite and spread malaria.

They will also have deformed reproductive organs, which will make it impossible to lay eggs, drastically decreasing the malaria-spreading mosquito population.

Lead researcher Ruth Muller says that her team does not want to eradicate mosquitoes, but rather control their populations in order to wipe out malaria.

Concerns about genetically modified mosquitoes

Not everyone is in favor of genetically modified mosquitoes and there are concerns about the safety of releasing gene-drive mosquitoes in the wild.

“This is an experimental technology which could have devastating impacts,” said Dana Perls of Friends of Earth, a group of environmental activists fighting against GMOs. “We need to slow down. We need to hit the pause button on gene drives,” she added.

While the total annihilation of mosquitoes is not the goal, the technology remains high-risk and if native mosquito populations are inadvertently completely eradicated, other nearby ecosystems will be affected in ways that are difficult to predict.

Eliminating an entire species could set off a cascade of unexpected effects that could result in the “collapse of ecosystems,” according to Ricarda Steinbrecher, who works at EcoNexis, a watchdog group based in Oxford, England.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is a Seattle-based private charitable foundation funded by Bill Gates, the co-founder of U.S. software giant Microsoft.

The foundation focuses on alleviating poverty and combating infectious diseases that affect the poorest communities.