Is this the end of malaria?

While some experts are debating how and if the world could go mosquito-free, other scientists are working to eradicate one of the major problems of the insect: malaria.

Malaria is a dangerous, easily transmittable disease known to be carried by mosquitoes. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimated that 207 million people were affected by malaria in 2012. Of those, there were 627,000 deaths.

Predominantly, areas in Africa are the most affected by the disease. This is because of a variety of factors, not the least of which being the efficient Anopheles gambiae complex mosquito, responsible for high transmission.

But with a new study coming out of Imperial College London, malaria may be a thing of the past.

For the first time, scientists have been able to manipulate mosquito reproductive systems. In initial laboratory tests, their method created nearly 95 percent male offspring. This is important, as it is the females that can bite and pass the disease to humans. Eliminating the females could eradicate, or at least greatly reduce the prevalence of, malaria.

“Malaria is debilitating and often fatal and we need to find new ways of tackling it,” said lead researcher Professor Andrea Crisanti from the Department of Life Sciences at Imperial College London. “We think our innovative approach is a huge step forward.”

In a normal reproductive scenario, mosquito offspring are about half female and half male. Scientists shifted this process by inserting a DNA cutting enzyme into the mosquitoes. The enzyme cuts the DNA of the X (female) during the creation of sperm. Therefore, no functioning sperm can carry the female chromosome, and resulting offspring were nearly exclusively male.

This particular project has been in the works for six years to create an effective variant of the enzyme. When the genetically modified mosquitoes were placed in laboratory settings, in four out of five tests, the entire population was eliminated within six generations due to the lack of females.

“What is most promising about our results is that they are self-sustaining,” Dr. Nikolai Windbichier, another lead researcher from the Department of Life Sciences at Imperial College London, said. “Once modified mosquitoes are introduced, males will start to produce mainly sons, and their sons will do the same, so essentially the mosquitoes carry out the work for us.”

In an ideal situation, if replicated in the wild, the mosquito population would essentially crash. As scientists have postulated, this may not be a bad thing.

“The research is still in its early days,” said Dr. Roberto Galizi, also from the Department of Life Sciences as Imperial College London. “I am really hopeful that this new approach could ultimately lead to a cheap and effective way to eliminate malaria from entire regions. Our goal is to enable people to live freely without the threat of this deadly disease.”

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