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Mosquito Population Crash

Researchers have shown in the lab that gene drives can spread through a mosquito population to lead its numbers to tumble, NPR reports.

Imperial College London's Andrea Crisanti and his colleagues used the CRISPR/Cas9 gene-editing tool to disrupt the intron 4-exon 5 boundary within the doublesex gene of Anopheles gambiae, a mosquito that spreads malaria among people. As they report in Nature Biotechnology, the researchers found that this alteration had no effect on male mosquito development or fertility, but, when homozygous, rendered female mosquitos infertile and incapable of laying eggs.

The researchers developed a gene drive construct to target this gene within a caged population of mosquitos. Within seven to 11 generations, this mutation became 100 percent prevalent, leading the mosquitos to the brink of population collapse, they report.

"It will still be at least five to 10 years before we consider testing any mosquitos with gene drive in the wild, but now we have some encouraging proof that we're on the right path," Crisanti tells Reuters.

As Agence France-Presse notes, some have called for a moratorium on the use of gene drives in the wild. "There are ecological risks from manipulating and removing natural populations, such as destroying food webs and shifting the behavior of diseases, as well as social risks of disrupting agriculture and enabling new weapons," Jim Thomson from the ETC Group, a technology watchdog group, tells it.

At NPR, Crisanti says he views the malaria-transmitting mosquito as a pathogen and, as such, it can be eliminated.

Gene drives are also being explored to control populations of invasive pests in New Zealand, the Galapagos, and California.