Gene Drives: The advanced sci-fi technology to fight malaria mosquito explained

Gene Drives: The advanced sci-fi technology to fight malaria mosquito explained
  • Genetic engineering in mosquitoes may help in eliminating malaria.
  • Gene drive technology was explored back in 2003.
  • Nearly half of the world’s population lives in areas at risk of malaria.
Scientists are using the most advanced form of genetic engineering to wipe out a population of malaria-transmitting mosquitoes by rendering females infertile. Scientists introduced a lab-tweaked gene (gene created using gene drive) into an organism that automatically replicates itself and targets a specific natural gene to destroy it.

The potential of gene drive was explored back in 2003 by Austin Burt, Professor at Imperial College London. Burt was studying ‘selfish genes’ that can copy themselves into a specific target DNA sequence. Further development in research, Burt said, this technology has a lot of potential, for instance, it could be used to eliminate a population of malaria-carrying mosquitoes.

Here’s what gene drive technology means in simple words
Animal-parent A contains gene drive mates which are not present in another animal- parent B, then after mating, forming embryo starts to combine genetic material. This is where parent-A’s gene drive gets to work. Gene drive of a parent A recognises the natural gene version of itself in the parent - B chromosome (chromosomes are threadlike structures made of protein and a single molecule of DNA). Parent - A destroyed its natural gene version of itself in the opposite chromosome present in parent- B, by cutting out the DNA chain. Once destroyed, parent- B’s chromosome repairs itself by copying parent- A’s gene drive.

So the final developed embryo will have a gene drive as the embryo takes half of its genes from each parent. This reduces mosquitoes' ability to breed or by limiting their ability to pass on the parasite.

Do we need gene drives?

According to World Health Organization, 627,000 people died from malaria in 2020. The disease is also slashing economic development by $12 billion in Africa.

The current methods of controlling malaria are facing difficulties as malaria parasites will soon become resistant to drugs (insecticide). Gene drive would be more cost-effective and feasible when compared to the use of insecticides.

There are 3500 mosquito species in the world and 800 alone in Africa. Gene drive can target specific species of mosquitoes that transmit malaria - Anopheles gambiae, Anopheles coluzzii and Anopheles arabiensis.

However, gene drive technology is not authorised for use among wild animals. There are no bans against continuing laboratory research into it.

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