Titled "Control of mosquito-borne infectious diseases: Sex and gene drive," a new study published in the journal Trends in Parasitology states that it is possible to prevent the transmission of deadly diseases such as Zika, dengue, yellow fever and chikungunya among others if the gene-editing technique CRISPR-Cas9 is applied to remove the ability of mosquitoes to breed female kinds which spread diseases.
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The scientists behind the study state that female mosquitoes are often deadly, blood-sucking, and vectors of killer diseases while male mosquitoes are often harmless and feed only on nectar.
"We are at a turning point both in our understanding of how mosquitoes determine whether to become a male (a good choice for us) or a female (trouble for us), as well as our ability to permanently modify wild populations using gene drive techniques," said Zach Adelman, an entomologist at Virginia Tech.
Scientists have succeeded at small scales to create sterile and transgenic mosquitoes that cannot transmit any sickness because they have been engineered to be unable to do this, but this cannot be done on a large scale because it is expensive and difficult to implement on large areas. But exploiting the potentials of CRISPR-Cas9 may make it possible for mosquitoes to hatch only males via mutations that make them sterile.
Another co-author of the study, Zhijian Tu of Virginia Tech revealed that he and his team have found the male-determining factor in mosquitoes. This factor is called the M factor while the sex-determination gene Nix in mosquitoes such as the Aedes aegypti species causes the development of male genitalia in female mosquitoes – helping to sterilize female mosquitoes.
"This discovery sets the stage for future efforts to leverage the CRISPR-Cas9 system to drive maleness genes such as Nix into mosquito populations, thereby converting females into males or simply killing females," Tu said. "Either outcome would help to reduce mosquito populations and improve sex separation procedures, which are required in any genetic strategy to prevent the accidental release of disease-transmitting females into wild populations."
Considering the fact that terrorists could take hold of genetic engineering to carry out bioterrorism acts, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine is working to establish ethical recommendations that will guide gene drive research in non-human organisms.
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In the research supported by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Adelman added that "partnerships with supportive governments, local collaborators and a willing public will be crucial to establishing field-based testing in areas that are most impacted by mosquito-borne diseases."