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GM mosquitoes to stop malaria

By spiralx in News
Mon Sep 03, 2001 at 12:35:27 PM EST
Tags: Science (all tags)

Next week, scientists from around the world will gather in London for a conference on fighting malaria, a disease which infects 500 million and kills 2.7 million people every year. Whereas previous efforts have focused on either killing the mosquitoes themselves or the parasite Plasmodium that causes the disease, such efforts have failed as the insects and the parasites become immune to the chemicals used to destroy them.

The solution: releasing a genetically modified mosquito into the wild that cannot transmit malaria to people.

There are many different varities of mosquito, and not all of them carry malaria thanks to genes which encode for toxins that destroy the Plasmodium before it can develop. What scientists have done is found a way to alter the genes of malaria-carrying mosquitoes using "jumping genes" which allow a gene which offers no survival or reproductive advantage to spread throughout a population. This method would allow the genes encoding for Plasmodium toxins to slowly spread throughout a population, and the scientists estimate a 2 to 25 year timeframe until the entire mosquito population is unable to infect people.

More coverage at Nature, BBC News and Science Daily.


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Do you think this is a good idea?
o No 25%
o Yes 42%
o Not sure 31%

Votes: 47
Results | Other Polls

Related Links
o malaria
o Plasmodium
o geneticall y modified
o mosquito
o jumping
o genes
o Nature
o BBC News
o Science Daily
o Also by spiralx

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GM mosquitoes to stop malaria | 16 comments (8 topical, 8 editorial, 0 hidden)
We're not ready yet (3.12 / 8) (#1)
by MugginsM on Mon Sep 03, 2001 at 06:32:17 AM EST

While I think this kind of thing is a good idea in *theory*, I simply don't believe that as a race we're mature enough to handle the responsibility that GM entails.

One mistake and we can wipe out half the biosphere. Given the current climate of shortcuts and funding cuts and rushing unfinished products to market and not letting anyone else look at high-tech inventions closely, I can't see how this wouldn't turn into a total disaster.

- MugginsM

This does not sound like a good idea (4.00 / 8) (#2)
by localroger on Mon Sep 03, 2001 at 07:54:23 AM EST

Reading the UniSci link (under the word "jumping"):

Nobel laureate Barbara McClintock first recognized this genetic phenomenon in the 1940s, though few believed her interpretation at that time.
Great, it's the Plate Tectonics of biology.

These comparisons are based on very skimply evidence, however, Kidwell noted, and "should not be considered the last word on this topic."
In other words, we don't have such basic understanding as a firm estimate of how many transposable elements are really present in flies, mice, and humans respectively. That's a pretty basic level of ignorance.

I would argue that transposon-host relationships can be viewed as a continuum, ranging between extreme parasitism at one end to mutualistic interactions at the other. Perhaps only a small proportion of transposon-host relationships evolve to become mutually beneficial over the long term. But a few of them will. Many relationships will not last long enough to make a difference.
Again, we have blue-sky speculation on matters of basic foundational knowledge. The bottom line as I read it:

  • We don't know why jumping genes exist at all
  • Given that they do exist, we don't know why they don't do more damage
  • We don't know why some are "selfish" and others are idle
  • While we know a few of their behaviors we don't know any of the mechanisms behind them, i.e. why some jumping genes seem to avoid jumping to active areas of the genome
The potential for something to go wrong is breathtaking. If this scheme were to backfire in some unpredictable way (anybody remember the cool plan to interbreed African and American bees?) there would be no way to stop it. When they can read out an individual genome and point to every transposable element and tell me what it does or did and how it got where it is and what, if anything, it's doing there, then I'll figure they are ready.

I can haz blog!

Very bad (1.91 / 24) (#4)
by cunt on Mon Sep 03, 2001 at 08:14:20 AM EST

It is a well-known fact that "genetic research" is in fact merely a thinly-veiled excuse for scientists to slaughter cute little babies.

Despicable, but what more can you expect from people who believe they had apes for ancestors? Killing innocent children out of boredom and passing it off as scientific advancement could only be considered acceptable in a culture that denied the reality of a big angry God.

Quite contrary from what the baby-killers would have you believe, it is generally not at all right to kill children. The holy scriptures clearly show that children should be beaten often and rarely killed, not the other way around.

Oh, and malaria sucks!

The problem with plans like this... (3.75 / 4) (#12)
by CyberQuog on Mon Sep 03, 2001 at 12:28:16 PM EST

The major problem with most genetic modifying projects like this, is that there are no ways to stop it once you set it in motion. For example, once they release this modified mosquito into the wild, it will be almost impossible to round it up again, or stop it from multiplying. It's a one-chance thing; there isn't any room for error when you're playing with nature. Especially when genetic engineering is in such an early phase.

They better be damn sure there aren't any "bugs" [pun intended] in their genetic software.

Great idea, IF it works. (4.50 / 2) (#13)
by physicsgod on Mon Sep 03, 2001 at 08:32:00 PM EST

The problem isn't transposons, we know what they do even if we don't know how or why they do it. Transposons are merely DNA snippets that can "hop in" or "hop out" of a chromosome, it's the "hop in" feature that makes them useful, since you don't have to make an artificial chromosome or anything. The worst case scenarnio would be for the gene to hop out and hop back in somewhere else in the genome, and assuming all the regulatory code is included in the transposon that will lead to a disabled gene, at worst. Even if the transposon just hops out you'll end up with a mosquito that can carry Plasmodium, which is what we have right now. Also, I don't think there's any danger to the enviroment, this is a gene already in thousands of mosquito species world-wide, the only threat is to Plasmodium, a species I'm all in favor of eliminating.

I do think Chris Curtis in the Nature article has a point, it'll be hard to make sure the new gene "takes" in the population, but I don't think it's impossible.

--- "Those not wearing body armor are hereby advised to keep their arguments on-topic" Schlock Mercenary

Better ways (4.00 / 1) (#14)
by ucblockhead on Tue Sep 04, 2001 at 01:07:37 PM EST

I think there are better, less dangerous avenues to pursue.

This is k5. We're all tools - duxup

What a wonderful crap shoot (none / 0) (#15)
by Anonymous 242 on Wed Sep 05, 2001 at 09:24:24 AM EST

Anyone interested in side effects of biological engineering to solve environmental problems should go to the local video rental agency and look up Cane Toads: An Unnatural History. This movie details the consequences of the artificial introduction of cane toads into Australia for the purpose of controlling a species of beetle, which itself was artificially introduced.

The truth is that we don't know what the consequences will be. For example, consider what Dr. Lee A. Newman of the University of South Carolina was reported to have said about genetically modified plants to the New York Times in its article New Pollution Tool: Toxic Avengers With Leaves.

The next goal would be to try to insert the mammalian gene in trees or other larger plants that could extract much larger amounts of the particular chemicals, she said. But she acknowledged that even though such plants would never turn up in a taco shell or other human food, the prospect of genetic manipulation would probably be looked at skeptically by the public.

Ironically, this comment was made after genetically modified corn was found in taco shells on the shelves of grocery stores.

The fact is, we have absolutely no idea on what the consequences will be. We do not know how this gene will interact in the wildnerness. The New York Times quoted University of Massachusetts entomologist George H. Boettner in its article When Biological Control Gets Out of Control on the dillema that biological solutions face:

"The advantage to biocontrol is that when you do it right, it's a permanent fix," said Mr. Boettner, adding that biological control was sometimes not only the best, but the only solution. "The problem is that when you make a mistake, it's permanent too. There is no way to get them back."

In the light of other solutions (such as the vaccine pointed out by ucblockhead) existing, we ought to be incredibly cautious about solving this problem through biological means, especially through genetically engineered biological means.


Lee Malatesta

Better yet (none / 0) (#16)
by weirdling on Mon Sep 10, 2001 at 05:27:31 PM EST

Make a gene that makes mosquito bites not itch or causes mosquitoes to leave humans alone. I'd pay for that...

I'm not doing this again; last time no one believed it.
GM mosquitoes to stop malaria | 16 comments (8 topical, 8 editorial, 0 hidden)
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