Lab-grown genetically modified mosquitoes to be released in 2018

By Tomi Stojanovic
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No one likes annoying mosquito bites, the itching, and scratching, and the terrible red skin afterwards. The worst thing that can happen from a bite is to catch one of several serious diseases, like malaria, yellow fever, zika, or dengue. But what if we told you that we could fight the disease by releasing killer versions of the insect to kill them off? The ongoing battle with the world’s most deadly creature might come to an end, with the lab-grown mosquitoes infected with the bacterium Wolbachia pipientis.

This year, on Nov 3, the Environmental Protection Agency approved a new strategy from MosquitoMate, a Kentucky-based biotech company. According to a report from Nature magazine, their goal is to kill every wild mosquito that potentially carries dangerous viruses.

Mosquito

In their labs, MosquitoMate scientists infect mosquitoes with the bacterium Wolbachia pipientis, which affects mosquitoes but not humans or other animals. The idea is to release the infected male mosquitoes to mate with female Asian tiger mosquitoes in the wild. Due to the effects of the bacterium, the fertilized eggs of the infected mosquitoes won’t hatch, since the paternal chromosomes don’t form correctly.

While the idea is astounding, and it probably will work, there is a time-based problem. The lab techs from MosquitoMate will have to separate the male from the female mosquitoes grown in the lab by hand. The process is time and resource intensive. Since the plan is to release the insects in the summer of 2018 in 20 US states and Washington DC, they’re going to have to work hard. The company will have to consider creating another, faster, more efficient way of separating the sexes since it would take millions of lab mosquitoes to be released in one city to suppress the population of the wild ones.

According to MosquitoMate’s FAQ:

“Unlike traditional mosquito control, we don’t show up after you have a problem. By acting proactively, your population of Asian Tiger mosquitoes will not reach a nuisance level.”

Mosquito bite

Other countries, like Brazil and China, have already successfully tested lab-grown genetically modified mosquitoes that eliminate pests in the wild. But scientists from MosquitoMate hope that their GMO-free solution will get much more respect from people who want a more natural way of getting rid of the mosquitoes that transfer deadly diseases on to us.

In an interview for Nature magazine, David O’Brochta, an entomologist at the University of Maryland in Rockville said:

“It’s a non-chemical way of dealing with mosquitoes, so from that perspective, you’d think it would have a lot of appeal. I’m glad to see it pushed forward, as I think it could be potentially really important.”

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