Oxitec, a company based in the UK, have developed what they call “Friendly mosquitoes”. These are bio-engineered male mosquitoes that would mate with the female to result in baby mosquitoes that die before they reach adulthood. This death before adulthood would be only for the female offspring.
Oxitec’s Friendly™ Aedes mosquitoes Image Credit: Oxitec
Since it is the bite of the female mosquitoes that spread infections such as malaria, Zika and dengue, this would stop the transmission of the infection. The male offspring who live on would spread the engineered gene that would allow the future progeny to die off in the same way.
Introduction of these mosquitoes would help save lives of 830,000 people who die of malaria annually. Over 600 million suffer from this disease with Sub-Saharan Africa being one of the worst affected. The infection is transmitted by the bite of the infected female Anopheles mosquitoes. Control of mosquito population is known as vector control or reduction in the carriers of the infection.
Image Credit: Oxitec Ltd
The scope of this project in elimination and eradication of the mosquito borne diseases is perceived to be big enough for Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to make a donation of $4 million announced on 22nd June 2018. Oxitec chief executive Grey Frandsen appreciated the donation and said that their company could now “enter the fight against malaria”. The $4 million for malaria control adds to their earlier donation of $4.9 million in 2010. The Gates have pledged to “eradicate malaria within a generation.”
According to the Gates’ malaria program director Philip Welkhoff, vector control has been crucial in reducing the spread of malaria in the last 15 years. The efforts in vector control have reached a plateau at present with no further progress being made. He said that this new innovation and others of this kind “is critical to realizing the goal of a world free of malaria”. He said that the work from Oxitec was a “self sustaining” genetically modified technique that could be used in Africa.
According to Frandsen these mosquito strains are self liming and they can be used to stop the spread of the disease spreading species of the mosquitoes. Malaria carrying mosquitoes are the next target he said. The field trials of these Friendly mosquitoes are to begin in 2020. Earlier a small pilot trial was planned for the Florida Keys but the local residents were opposed to the idea. Environmental charity “Friends of the Earth” had earlier opposed the trial citing ethical concerns about killing off mosquito progeny before they reached adulthood.