The mosquito species Anopheles gambiae is a major carrier of dangerous malaria parasites in sub-Saharan Africa, where 90 per cent of annual malaria deaths occur. Malaria infects more than 200 million people each year and causes more than 430,000 deaths.
Now, a team of researchers led by Imperial College London have genetically modified Anopheles gambiae so that they carry a modified gene disrupting egg production in female mosquitoes. They used a technology called ‘gene drive’ to ensure the gene is passed down at an accelerated rate to offspring, spreading the gene through a population over time.
Within a few years, the spread could drastically reduce or eliminate local populations of the malaria-carrying mosquito species. Their findings represent an important step forward in the ability to develop novel methods of vector control.
Normally, each gene variant has a 50 per cent chance of being passed down from parents to their offspring. In the Imperial team’s experiments with Anopheles gambiae, the gene for infertility was transmitted to more than 90 per cent of both male and female mosquitoes’ offspring.
The technique uses recessive genes, so that many mosquitoes will inherit only one copy of the gene. Two copies are needed to cause infertility, meaning that mosquitoes with only one copy are carriers, and can spread the gene through a population.
This is the first time the technique has been demonstrated inAnopheles gambiae. The team targeted three different fertility genes and tested each for their suitability for affecting a mosquito population through gene drive, demonstrating the strength and flexibility of the technique to be applied to a range of genes. The results are published today in the journal Nature Biotechnology.
“The field has been trying to tackle malaria for more than 100 years. If successful, this technology has the potential to substantially reduce the transmission of malaria,” said co-author Professor Andrea Crisanti from the Department of Life Sciences at Imperial.
“As with any new technology, there are many more steps we will go through to test and ensure the safety of the approach we are pursuing. It will be at least 10 more years before gene drive malaria mosquitos could be a working intervention,” added Professor Austin Burt from Imperial’s Department of Life Sciences.