Manufacturing the harmless mosquito

Manufacturing the harmless mosquito

You’ve got to hand it to the male Aedes aegypti (A-dees e-JIPP-ti) mosquito. Around the world and in the U.S., this species is one of the most-common disease-transmitting mosquitoes. Well, the females are. The males don’t feed on blood for protein, instead getting nutrition from plants. So, the males don’t bite humans or spread disease. Good little fellas.

The females, however, will draw blood to produce eggs and can infect us with pathogens such as Zika, dengue fever and, in the undeveloped world, yellow fever.

A potential solution proposed by Virginia Tech scientists might, at first blush, seem absurd: Change the sex of the females.

It’s all about genetics, and the details are complicated. It boils down to inserting a sex-controlling gene normally inherited by males into a chromosomal region of the mosquito that is inherited by females. Viola! Females then convert to males.

As a mosquito-control technique, this might seem seriously impractical. After all, who’s got the time to alter the genes of the billions and trillions of mosquitoes plaguing humanity? But if genetically modified mosquitoes are released into nature, researchers believe they might naturally alter indigenous Aedes aegypti populations by culling out the more dangerous, biting females.

The Virginia Tech scientists say this method of female-to-male conversion has proven to be effective and stable over generations of lab mosquitoes. The implications for the control of diseases borne by this species in the wild are far-ranging. But the study’s authors note more research is needed.

Nobody’s asked Aedes aegypti how they like the idea. Although fewer would end up being swatted into oblivion.

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