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Malaria-proof mosquito engineered!

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posted on Jul, 16 2010 @ 12:01 PM

Scientists in the US have succeeded in genetically engineering a malaria-resistant mosquito.

The researchers, from the University of Arizona, introduced a gene that affected the insect's gut, meaning the malaria parasite could not develop.

They report the advance, which also reduced the insects' lifespan, in the journal PLoS Pathogens.

They say that the ultimate goal is to introduce malaria-resistant mosquitoes into the environment...

...This is a key step in a long genetic battle against a global killer. The ultimate aim is to tackle the root cause of malaria's spread by releasing the parasite-proof mosquitoes into the environment.

For that to be successful, the genetically modified insects would have to "take over" from the naturally occurring, disease-spreading mosquitoes.

This means giving the GM insects a competitive advantage - something that has not yet been achieved. Researchers are investigating a number of genetic "tricks" in pursuit of this...

...But there are serious ethical concerns about releasing a genetically modified insect into the environment. Once the science is pinned down, the risks and benefits to the environment, and to human health, will have to be properly assessed.


The implications of this achievement are mind-boggling: perhaps the beginning of the end for one of the most devastating diseases on the planet. Were this project to be taken to its ultimate conclusion it could have incalculable effects on health, not to mention major impacts in the social and economic aspects of life in so many countries.

But this is also a Brave New World in which the full implications of releasing genetically modified insects (on the necessary scale) are incalculable. Even large-scale trials could never fully replicate the potential effects on food chains in the wild, for example.

So the question is: should they forge ahead with this project with all possible haste in order to bring about the undoubted myriad benefits on human society, or ought the overriding concern be the precautionary principle, as once these creatures have been released there may be no turning back?

I hope the latter does not sound like fear-mongering. It is not intended as such. However the sheer number of variables involved in releasing genetically modified creatures designed to overtake and eventually wipe out the natural stock is surely sufficient reason to raise very significant concerns.

And even were the scientific community to conduct long and extensive trials that showed no (or no potentially insurmountable) detrimental effects on the environment — persuading the general public to get behind a full-scale release would still be a different matter.

After all, the public are all too aware that no trial can ever prove a negative. And where food chains can potentially be disrupted (as, some would argue, has been the case with genetically modified bees,) vehement opposition can be expected.

I suppose the level of concern might vary to some degree in proportion to the prevalence of malaria in any given part of the world...

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