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Written by Ana Kormos, University of California Irvine Malaria Initiative

The University of California Irvine Malaria Initiative (UCIMI) is a not-for-profit research collaborative whose mission is to contribute to the eradication of human malaria.

UCIMI has developed gene drive-based systems for the modification of the African malaria vector mosquito, Anopheles gambiae, to prevent them from transmitting the parasites that cause malaria.

Our population modification strategy (also known as population replacement) is designed to rapidly spread beneficial genes that prevent malaria parasite transmission by the mosquito throughout the vector population. This strategy eliminates the parasite, not the mosquito, which we believe has many advantages over strategies aimed at reducing or suppressing mosquito populations.

Scientists from the University of California Irvine, San Diego and Berkeley developed a gene drive system that is able to address the accumulation of drive-resistant mosquitoes – a challenge observed on the team’s original gene drive.

Scientists predict a 36% rise in the number of non-native species worldwide by 2050. Europe is likely to be the most affected with an increase of 64%. Researchers used a mathematical model based on records of alien species introductions and estimates of species that could end up becoming invasive if current movements continue. The movement of large insects, birds and small creatures such as molluscs and crustaceans is expected to be the largest.

The rising number of non-native species particularly threatens islands’ biodiversity and ecosystems. Although islands comprise only 5.3% of the planet’s terrestrial area, they are extinction epicentres. According to the NGO Island Conservation, 75% of reptile, bird, amphibian and mammal extinctions have occurred on islands. Of those, 86% were caused by invasive alien species (IAS).

Scientists from the University of California - San Diego have developed two new active genetic systems capable of halting and eliminating gene drives in the wild. The first neutralizing system, called e-CHACR, inactivates the gene drive, while the other, ERACR, is capable of eliminating it completely.

According to researchers, gene drives have enormous potential to address global health and environmental challenges. Gene drives could become an efficient gene drive control mechanism if necessary, addressing part of the unknowns associated with the potential use of this technology.

Read the full study at Molecular Cell.