Genetically changed mosquitoes could transform Africa’s long fight against malaria

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Source: Down to Earth

Relevance: Tackling Malaria via genetic programming of Mosquitoes.

Synopsis: Genetic programming of mosquitoes along with traditional methods of Malaria prevention could help us reduce the increasing cases of Malaria globally and help reduce associated mortality.

Context

For Malaria prevention, some countries heavily depend on using insecticide treated bed nets and house spraying. These efforts, together with effective treatment, have greatly reduced the malaria burden across the continent. But lately, some countries, in Africa, have been reporting increase in cases because of resistance to insecticides.

Malaria control must, therefore, move away from relying too much on insecticides to more sustainable options.

A World Health Organisation (WHO) panel in 2016, concluded that even with the best use of current approaches, there would still be 11 million malaria cases in 2050. It called for long term strategies to complement current methods.

One of the solutions is the release of genetically programmed mosquitoes.

About gene drive

In nature, there’s a phenomenon called gene drive which operates in the process of reproduction. This is when a genetic element is able to increase the chance that it will be inherited by offspring.

  • The general underlying principle of all gene drives is an organism that will produce offspring similar to themselves.
  • Some characteristics are randomly passed on from parents to the next generation. However, gene drive forces a different type of inheritance that ensures a specific characteristic is always present in the next generation. Scientists engineer gene drive using various molecular tools.
  • Gene drive is not just a human invention; some occur naturally in insects.
  • Unlike traditional genetic modification, gene drives enable extremely rapid spread of the desired characteristics.
Genetically-programmed mosquitoes
  • The genetically programmed mosquitoes, are also called as “protector mosquitoes”.
  • Upon mating with wild mosquitoes, they produce offspring that are either incapable of any further reproduction or unable to transmit malaria parasites.
  • Researchers are using gene-editing tools to modify what certain mosquitoes are capable of, and make sure these capabilities are passed on to the next generation.
  • The genetically programmed mosquitoes could take over wild populations of disease-carrying mosquitoes in just a few generations.
Concerns/Issues 
  • Ethical concerns about gene drive are often motivated by larger issues, such as how to stop gene drive from being used in biological weapons by engineering insects that are more dangerous. Then, there is the question of who should decide which gene drive projects move forward and what types of insects with gene drive can be released into the environment.
  • Ecological concerns– Gene drive might cause unintended consequences in the ecosystem. What will happen to the natural ecosystem if a population, even of mosquitoes, that make people sick is driven to extinction? Potential threats to natural biodiversity and the security of food? etc. are some serious questions that need answering.

Way forward

More education and risk assessments are needed to inform further development of the technology. Regulatory and accountability systems are required so that regulations are adhered to and public safety is protected.

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