By Dr Omar Akbari, The Akbari Lab, UC San Diego

Every year on August 20, World Mosquito Day is commemorated to increase public awareness of the potentially life-threatening diseases spread by mosquitoes, and the steps that may be taken to prevent them. The day was originated in 1897 by Dr Ronald Ross of the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine. During a dissection, Ross discovered the malaria parasite in the stomach walls of a female mosquito, leading him to declare the first World Mosquito Day as an opportunity to raise awareness of the link between mosquitoes and malaria.

Aedes aegypti mosquitoes are the main vector of several major pathogens including yellow fever, dengue, and Zika viruses.  

Mosquitoes are perhaps the most dangerous animals in the world. They are the primary vectors for major human diseases such as yellow fever, Zika, dengue fever, and malaria. Mosquito-borne illnesses infect almost 700 million people every year, resulting in thousands of deaths. These diseases disproportionately affect the poorest populations and are most prevalent in tropical and subtropical regions. In the last decade, numerous countries have experienced major outbreaks which have affected populations, claimed lives, and taxed health systems. The World Health Organization (WHO) has also raised concerns about insecticide-resistant mosquitoes and drug-resistant malaria parasites emerging, which could further thwart efforts to stop the spread of these deadly diseases.

World Mosquito Day provides an opportunity to acknowledge the progress made in the fight against mosquito-borne diseases so far and raise awareness of the challenges they still pose worldwide. Although useful, current approaches are not enough to curb the expansion of vector-borne illnesses, once again on the rise in the last few years.

At The Akbari Lab, we are investigating the potential of new technologies to help control the spread of mosquito-borne diseases, such as malaria or dengue. Our research focuses on understanding the fundamental genetics and physiology of mosquitoes with the objective of developing novel, inventive, and creative genetic control technologies to lessen the burden of human diseases brought on by mosquitoes.

Investigating Aedes aegypti mosquitoes in the lab.  

Due to factors such as climate change, disease-carrying mosquitoes are spreading. Southern California, for example, where our lab is located, has become a new breeding ground for non-native Aedes mosquitoes since 2001. This further raises concerns about the spread of mosquito-borne diseases in regions with historically low infections rates. How mosquito populations are evolving and the potential for future epidemics - or even pandemics - spread by these tiny killers beckons further investigation.

If we are to successfully control mosquito-borne diseases and address existing challenges in the fight towards their elimination, we must invest in more creative preventative solutions and treatments as well as new technologies to add to our current toolbox of interventions.

Happy World Mosquito Day!

A recent report published by CSIRO, Australia’s national science agency, explores the Australian public’s attitudes and perceptions towards the use of gene drive technology for the management of invasive species, by using the example of feral cats. Invasive species, such as feral cats, have a devastating impact on Australia’s biodiversity, natural landscapes, and agricultural industries. Every year, feral cats alone kill an estimated 1.8 billion Australian animals. On top of the devastating environmental toll, current control methods have proven to be quite costly and difficult to apply at scale. To address this challenge, and protect Australia’s native biodiversity, new approaches, such as the use of gene drive technologies, are being investigated.

The research is centered around a survey, conducted with two samples of Australian residents to reflect a diverse range of perspectives. The first sample included residents living in parts of South Australia, where feral cats are a known invasive species, while the second included participants from the broader Australian public. Throughout the survey, participants were exposed to an animation explaining how gene drive for invasive animal control could work in Australia and were asked to imagine a scenario where feral cats posed a threat in their local area and needed urgent management.

The study, which surveyed more than 3,800 people across Australia, found that 86% of people were at least moderately supportive of the local implementation of gene drive technology to control feral cats. Moreover, 80% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that gene drive approaches would be better than current cat control methods, such as trapping, shooting, and baiting. In terms of attitudes towards the technology, most participants believed it was more beneficial than harmful, but were less certain about whether the technology would be safe or risky.

While feral cats have only been in Australia for around 200 years, they have already negatively altered the continent’s ecosystem. These highly efficient predators cover over 90% of the Australian continent and have contributed to the extinction of at least 21 mammals, two reptiles and 40 bird species worldwide.

Although gene drive research is still in its early stages, and its potential use on vertebrates some way off in most cases, the findings of this study shed light on the level of potential public support for using novel genetic approaches to address the challenges posed by invasive species in Australia.

The third webinar of the 2022 Gene Drive Webinar Series provided participants with an overview of the different dimensions of gene drive impact and risk assessments, including environmental and socio-economic aspects. An initiative led by the Outreach Network for Gene Drive Research and the ISAAA SEAsiaCenter, the panel “Integrating Social, Economic and Health Aspects Into the Decision-making Process” delved into gene drive’s potential social, economic and health impacts and how experts are integrating these aspects into risk assessment as research advances.

World Nature Conservation Day is celebrated every year on July 28 and serves as a reminder of the value of conservation for people and wildlife alike. On this day, we are invited to reflect on ways to protect the environment and natural resources and raise awareness about ways to save species that are facing threats of extinction.

The sustained fight against malaria has led to massive strides being made against the disease in the past few decades with malaria almost going extinct in most parts of the world. However, data available for Sub-Saharan Africa still paints a dismal picture, with over 96% of malaria deaths worldwide being reported from the continent alone in 2020, according to the World Health Organization. So, what explains these high numbers and what lies behind the region’s persistent malaria prevalence?