Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Building a better mosquito
Mosquitoes are a highly successful branch of the insects. They have been around since the Jurassic and currently have about 3500 species spread across all the continents except Antarctica. In many places, the size, number, and voraciousness of the mosquitoes is a matter of perverse local pride.

Mosquitoes are more than an annoyance. Because the females use mammal blood to feed their young, they are a health hazard to their neighbors, both from the sores left by their bites and, more importantly, by the diseases they can carry. Mosquitoes have been identified as the major vector for the spread of yellow fever, West Nile virus, and malaria. This has made mosquito control one of the leading priorities of public health in many parts of the world.

For years this has involved trying to kill as many mosquitoes as possible or stop them from breeding by destroying their breeding grounds. The latter strategy has now fallen into disfavor as many of those breeding grounds are important ecosystems. In addition, some mosquitoes fill important roles in their ecosystems so wiping them out would be a bad idea even if we could do it. For example, among the thirty or so species of mosquito in Alaska, the non-bloodsucking males are a major source of pollination for plants on the tundra.

A new approach is needed (via Coturnix).
Eliminating the pests appears impossible. But scientists are attempting to re-engineer them so they cannot carry disease. If they manage that, they must create enough mutants to mate with wild insects and one day to outnumber them.

Researchers chasing this dream, including an N.C. State University entomologist, know they may court controversy. Genetically modified crop plants such as soybeans, corn and cotton have become common in the United States, but an altered organism on wings would be a first.

Critics of bio-engineering, especially in Europe, view some genetic alterations as unnatural, even monstrous. People fearful of so-called Frankenfood could sound similar alarms over Frankenbugs.

But with advances in molecular biology and millions of dollars from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, this quest may be within reach. And its promise is huge, the scientists say.

I'm not sure whether this is the best approach or even whether it will work, but I'm glad to see some creative thought (and money) being applied to the problem.

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