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Can Genetic Modification Eliminate a Deadly Tropical Disease?

For related articles and more information, please visit OCA's Genetic Engineering page.

ABSTRACT: ANNALS OF SCIENCE about genetically-modified mosquitoes and the dengue virus. Aedes aegypti mosquitoes are among the deadliest creatures on earth. Before a vaccine was discovered in the nineteen-thirties, the mosquito transmitted the yellow-fever virus to millions of people with devastating efficiency. The mosquito also carries dengue, one of the most rapidly spreading viral diseases in the world. According to the World Health Organization, dengue infects at least fifty million people a year. More than half a million people become seriously ill from the disease. There is no vaccine or cure for dengue, or even a useful treatment. Now a British biotechnology company called Oxitec has developed a method to modify the genetic structure of the male Aedes mosquito, essentially transforming it into a mutant capable of destroying its own species. Oxitec, which is short for Oxford Insect Technologies, has essentially transformed the insect-research facility Moscamed, in the Brazilian city of Juazeiro, into an entomological assembly line. In one tightly controlled space, mosquitoes are hatched, nurtured, fed a combination of goat's blood and fish food, and bred.

Lab technicians then destroy the females they have created and release the males into the wild. Eggs fertilized by those genetically modified males will hatch normally, but soon after, and well before the new mosquitoes can fly, the fatal genes prevail, killing them all. The goal is both simple and audacious: to overwhelm the native population of Aedes aegypti and wipe them out, along with the diseases they carry. The engineered mosquitoes, officially known as OX513A, lead a brief but privileged life. The entire process, from creation to destruction, takes less than two weeks. Mentions Andrew McKemey. The field trial, which began a year ago, is a collaboration between Moscamed, Oxitec, and the University of Sao Paulo. Preliminary results have been impressive: the group recently collected a sample of eggs in two neighborhoods where the engineered mosquitoes had been released, and found that eighty-five per cent of them were genetically modified.

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