Mosquitoes have been a pesky problem for the survival of humanity because they constantly carry deadly diseases like malaria. New science, however, suggests that humans might have a pretty decent chance at winning this war once and for all. We now have the technology to completely wipe mosquitoes extinct probably within our lifetime, but is this the best solution to combat these deadly insects?
Bill Gates is Down With CRISPR
Bill Gates seems to think so. He funds a project called Target Malaria which is actively looking to alter the DNA of mosquitoes. This would be done using a new scientific breakthrough called CRISPR modification, which lets scientists alter very specific parts of DNA in living cells to suit whatever purpose they want. In this case, scientists could modify the DNA of mosquitoes so that a new strand includes resistance to diseases like malaria.
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Gates is optimistic that this gene editing technology will be ready for primetime sooner than you think. ““I would deploy it two years from now,” he said at the Forbes 400 Summit.
Scientists could modify the DNA of mosquitoes so that a new strand includes resistance to diseases like malaria.
How would this exactly make mosquitoes extinct? Well, if the mosquitoes with modified DNA were released in the wild, they could mate with other mosquitoes and create an entirely new breed of mosquitoes. Technically, mosquitoes would still exist, just not as we know them now. If successful, the new mosquitoes with resistance to malaria would completely wipe out the mosquitoes now that often carry it.
However, up until recently this concept has been particularly hard because of the fundamental way reproduction works. Just because one mosquito carries a malaria-resistant gene doesn’t mean it’s the dominant one that gets passed down in future generations. A new, genetically modified mosquito mating with a natural one has a pretty bad chance of wiping out all the natural ones.
Gene drives solve this problem by modifying a genome so that the modified strand of DNA is present in both copies and thus becomes the dominant gene that gets passed down. A fascinating video from none other than than Kurzgesagt explains this science in detail.
Potential Problems of Mosquito Eradication
Some are fearful that if the mosquito experiment is successful, people in positions of power will start taking advantage of CRISPR to alter nature even further.
Still, there are several reasons why scientists aren’t being too quick about releasing modified mosquitoes in the wild to peacefully destroy all the current ones. For one, this CRISPR technology is new and there is still plenty we don’t know about it. As such, going forward to release new mosquitoes in the wild could have unintended or even dangerous consequences if we don’t know 100 percent about how CRISPR modification affects the rest of the mosquito or its offspring. These fears are similar to those of people against food GMOs.
Additionally, some are fearful that if the mosquito experiment is successful, people in positions of power will start taking advantage of CRISPR to alter nature even further. There could come a scary time when we live in a world entirely modified by humans and use CRISPR as a means of getting rid of any inconveniences and imperfections in nature.
When asked about these potential downsides, Gates politely disagreed that it would escalate into anything more than its current purposes. “I think the way we’re doing the construct will make it a very key tool for malaria eradication,” he told Forbes.
It’s just a matter of time before we find out if he’s right. Either way, there is no denying the incredible potential CRISPR holds.