Malaria-blocking genes: Engineering Mosquitoes Malaria

Published: November 24, 2015

Malaria-blocking genes: Engineering Mosquitoes Malaria, The mosquito has been engineered to carry two ingenious genetic modifications. One is a set of genes that spew out antibodies to the malarial parasite harbored by the mosquito. Mosquitoes with these genes are rendered resistant to the parasite and so cannot spread malaria.

The other modification is a set of genetic elements known as a gene drive that should propel the malaria-resistance genes throughout a natural mosquito population. When a malaria-resistant male mosquito mates with a wild female, the gene drive copies both itself and the resistance genes over from the male chromosome to its female counterpart.

Because almost all the progeny carry the new genes, instead of just 50 percent as would be expected by Mendel’s laws of genetics, the inserted genes are expected to spread rapidly and take over a wild population in as few as 10 generations, or a single season. A large region, at least in principle, could be freed from malaria, which kills almost 600,000 people a year.

The anti-malarial antibody genes were developed by a group led by Anthony A. James of the University of California, Irvine, and the gene drive by Valentino M. Gantz and Ethan Bier of the University of California, San Diego. The two teams reported the result of their collaboration in Monday’s issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“This is a very important advance in the field of mosquito biology,” said George Dimopoulos, a biologist at Johns Hopkins who has engineered mosquitoes to resist the malarial parasite with a different set of genes.

Kevin Esvelt, an expert on the gene drive technique at Harvard, said he was delighted with the work of the two teams. “We have a wonderful chance of knocking down malaria and dengue fever and other diseases, so hats off to Tony James, who has been developing these techniques for 15 years,” he said.

The two teams came together after Dr. Gantz and Dr. Bier developed a gene drive for the Drosophila fruit fly, a standard laboratory organism, to help identify genetically mutant insects. Finding their gene drive was far more efficient than expected, driving its cargo genes into almost all the fruit fly progeny, the researchers realized they had created not just a handy laboratory tool but a powerful technique for spreading favored genes through wild populations.

After sending a report of their finding to the journal Science, which published it in April, Dr. Bier started looking around for practical uses for the technique, and came across a 2012 article in which Dr. James described making mosquitoes resistant to the malarial parasite. Dr. James concluded his paper by noting that “if coupled with a mechanism for gene spread,” his resistance genes “could become a self-sustaining disease control tool.” Having developed just such a mechanism, Dr. Bier called Dr. James to propose a collaboration.

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