Researchers from Germany and Mali discovered that during the dry season, the malaria parasite enacts a genetic change that enables it to hide in an infected person’s bloodstream for months, undetected. The discovery partially explains how the disease persists at times during which almost no one falls ill and when there are few mosquitoes to carry the parasite from one human host to another.

The new study is available in the journal Nature Medicine.

Written by Luke Alphey, The Pirbright Institute

While “I know it when I see it” is good enough for many purposes, a broadly recognised definition is important for framing debates, not least about regulation and in the context of public engagement.

The NAS 2016 report “Gene drives on the horizon” reviewed the origin and use of the term and concluded that it is essentially synonymous with “selfish DNA”. From my personal perspective, the concept seems to have arisen from “meiotic drive” and similar naturally-occurring genetic systems, then perhaps became synonymous with “synthetic gene drives” – with a lot of excitement over the potential of engineered transposons, for example, though their star has waned considerably in recent years – and has now moved to something a little more all-encompassing including both natural and synthetic systems.

This week, the World Health Organization (WHO) released its annual World Malaria Report. The publication provides an up-to-date assessment of the malaria burden on 87 countries and territories with ongoing malaria transmission, tracking investments, research and progress across all intervention areas.

Achievements over the past decade are impressive. Investments on prevention, diagnosis and treatment programmes have prevented 1.5 billion cases of malaria and saved 7.6 million lives. Progress was visible in all regions. The incidence of malaria in the Greater Mekong subregion, for example, dropped by 90% from 2000 to 2019.

Brave New Planet is a new podcast series exploring the potential impact and inherent risks of new technologies that could shape our future as never before. The initiative is led by Eric Lander, Professor of Biology at Harvard Medical School and Director of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, in partnership with the Boston Globe and Pushkin Industries.

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.