What is the deadliest animal on earth? If you’re thinking of the great white shark or a venomous snake, you could be wrong. Counting human deaths, it is the innocently named (Spanish for “little fly”) mosquito. Millions, mostly children in third world countries, are killed or sickened each year by malaria, dengue, yellow fever and encephalitis caused by parasites and viruses that are transmitted by mosquito bites. This happens despite billions of dollars spent, years of research and potential cures ranging from vaccines and drugs to public health management.
Stop or Go, that is the Question: Imagine if the mosquito could kill the parasite before it has the chance to spread to its human victims. For example, the mosquito could be engineered to make antibodies against Plasmodium, killing the parasite soon after it enters the mosquito after a blood meal. Just like a vaccination, nearly all mosquitoes would need to carry this new trait to be effective. There is a way to do this and it is not a new idea. What used to be theory, however, has just become a reality. A new paper published in the journal PNAS has now changed the question from Can we do this? to Should we do this?
What are Gene Drives?: Normally, the chance that any gene trait is passed from parent to offspring is 50%, since only one of a chromosome pair is inherited from that parent. But some selfish genes can copy themselves so that both chromosomes carry the trait, which now affects 100% offspring. A gene drive consists of DNA sequences that provides the technical ability to do this. With the new CRISPR/Cas9 tool that precisely cuts and inserts any gene of interest, the gene drive has become a reality.
Can Gene Drives work on Humans? Gene drives work best in fast reproducing species, like mosquitoes, that can be released in large numbers. For this reason, they are not going to be effective in spreading inadvertently through humans, or even commercial crops and animals which are bred by controlled processes like artificial pollination and insemination.
Gene Drives are Natural: For example, a gene called P element swept through all fruit flies in the wild, but is not found in lab strains that were isolated before it spread.
Gene Drives can be Reversed: For each gene drive that spreads a trait, a reverse gene drive can undo the genetic changes in the original strain. Such reversal drives should be tested in advance, and could be released to stop the spread of any unintended consequences.
What else can Gene Drives do? Besides targeting mosquitoes, gene drives could be used to eradicate invasive species, or reverse resistance to herbicides and pesticides.
Take the Poll: A public conversation based on sound scientific information, weighing pros and cons, must be the starting point for developing policy. Engineered mosquitoes that could rapidly spread in the wild and eradicate the malarial parasite have been made. Here is the question: Should we use Gene Drive engineered mosquitoes to fight Malaria?
FAQ on Gene Drives: http://goo.gl/V3Jmz1
Image: Matt Panuska
Pop Science Read: http://goo.gl/oROVBG
Advanced Read: http://goo.gl/uTN47v