The Pirbright Institute joined the Outreach Network in June. Their team is adding to the diversity of research groups looking into possible applications of gene drive approaches to tackle vector-borne diseases. This important work, focused on the mosquitoes that transmit viruses responsible for dengue, Zika and West Nile, will complement other efforts focused on malaria.

Pirbright’s Arthropod Genetics group, led by Professor Luke Alphey, is using gene drive to create proof-of-concept tools with the ultimate goal of reducing or eliminating mosquito-borne diseases. The group are primarily working with Aedes aegypti and Culex quinquefasciatus mosquitoes, which spread diseases of the flavivirus family.

The New York Times recently published an interesting article about how mosquitoes have affected human history. In “The Mosquitoes Are Coming for Us”, Timothy C. Winegard offers a sweeping review of mosquitoes’ deep impact on humans. Mosquitoes facilitated the rise and fall of the Roman Empire and even contributed to increasing slavery in America, as plantation owners believed Africans were more resistant to vector-borne diseases than native Americans. Mosquitoes have been more lethal than any manufactured weapons or inventions. Malaria, for instance, may have killed half of all the people that have ever lived (read John Whitfield “Portrait of a Serial Killer” in Nature)

Confused about what gene drives are and how they came about?

Read this great piece in the American Scientist by Fred Gould! Tracing the history of gene drives discovery and study, it offers a great backgrounder and explanation to the current thinking on the use of genetic technologies for controlling mosquito-borne diseases. As the article notes “You can hear both optimism and frustration at meetings where entomologists get together to talk over genetic control strategies. Scientists in this field have made great progress in the past 10 years, but major technical and social hurdles remain. In the end there will be poetic justice if biologists are able to use selfish DNA to serve the altruistic goal of improving world health.”

There are concerns that bednets may be losing their effectiveness on controlling malaria, as mosquitoes’ resistance to insecticides increases and behavioural changes mean they now bite more frequently during the day. However, the recent slowdown in progress in fighting the disease could be partially credited to the inconsistent use of bednets, according to a recent study published in The American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene.

Written by Samantha O’Loughlin, Target Malaria

(This is the last of a series of six posts about common gene drive misconceptions)

Can we know that a gene drive will not cause irreversible harm to our environment? Removing any species from the environment, even locally, may have consequences, so these must be thoroughly considered. Sometimes these consequences will be clearly beneficial. One of the uses proposed for gene drive is to help in the removal of invasive rodents on islands where they are an alien species and have caused many extinctions of native wildlife; another is to reduce the numbers of invasive mosquitoes in Hawaii to save native birds from extinction by mosquito-transmitted diseases. In these cases, removing the species would be beneficial.