Genetically Modified Mosquitoes: The End of Malaria?

30 08 2010

Every year on this planet, malaria kills roughly one million people, many of them children. Scientists are trying to change that number.

Given that malaria is transmitted by the mosquito, which only lives about a month, shortening the mosquito lifespan could reduce the number of infections.  At least in theory.

Dr. Michael Riehle and his staff at the University of Arizona have been busy engineering a GM (genetically modified) mosquito. They’ve shortened the lifespan of the mosquito without modifying its essential functions, and this could change the lives of people who live with the threat of malaria on a daily basis.

The bugaboo is that genetically modifying insects, plants, and animals can result in unintended consequences.  There are scenarios that can’t be tested in a laboratory environment, or anticipated in the wild.    For instance, what if the GM mosquito, unable to transmit malaria due to a shortened life span, is the perfect vector for transmission of some other disease?

In the U.S., numerous exotic species have been introduced accidently—and intentionally. Many have become invasive species.  The kudzu vine, the Japanese beetle, the snakehead fish, pythons, and the elm bark beetle are a few in a long list of  species that have endangered indigenous plants, fish and animals because they have no natural predators in their new habitat.

Today we have GMOs (genetically modified organisms), including bacteria, plants and animals, that have been highly successful in the lab advancing medical research.

GM plants have been used in the fields and the foods we eat since the early 1990s.   Staple crops like corn, soy beans, and tomatoes are some GM crops.  Have there been ramifications?  Are there health implications?  Can we even identify the products that are genetically modified?

Just recently, GM canola plants, which are pesticide-resistant, have been found cross-pollinating in the wild with weeds.  The repercussions are not yet known.  Meanwhile, genetically engineered sugar beets, responsible for 50 percent of our sugar, have been tabled due to a federal court ruling.

Various GM lab animals and GM crops and livestock are on the docket for FDA review.  There is the potential for benefit, but there is also concern.

Currently there is nothing stopping someone from introducing these GM mosquitos, which could be the answer to many prayers, or a possible “frankenfish.”

There are proponents and opponents in the GM debate.  On which side do you land?








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