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Dr Andrea Crisanti
These mosquitoes will remain a lab tool for some years yet
 real 28k

The BBC's David Concar
"They buzz, they bite, and they're genetically modified"
 real 28k

The BBC's Richard Hollingham
The GM mosquitoes are kept behind five secure doors
 real 28k

Risks and benefits
Dr John Turney, University College London, and Dr Susan Mayer, GeneWatch, debate the issues
 real 28k

Professor Chris Curtis
Malaria is a huge problem, especially in tropical Africa
 real 28k

Wednesday, 21 June, 2000, 22:42 GMT 23:42 UK
GM mosquitoes to fight malaria
Mos Nature
Modified insects glow green under ultraviolet light
It could soon be possible to "redesign" the mosquito so that it cannot carry malaria, say European researchers.

Scientists have developed a technology that allows them to modify the insects' genetic make-up.

They proved the technique by introducing a fragment of DNA that makes the mosquitoes glow green under ultraviolet light.

But the team, who report their work in the journal Nature, say it should also be possible to introduce more useful changes that prevent mosquitoes from spreading malaria.

This could be done by:

  • altering the insects' own immune system so that they cannot carry the parasite that causes malaria;
  • modifying the insects' sense of smell so that they seek out and bite animals rather than humans;
  • altering the insects in a way that would allow large-scale breeding of sterile males. These could then be released into dangerous populations to keep numbers down.

The egg is prevented from hardening too quickly
However, the scientists, including Dr Andrea Crisanti at Imperial College London, UK, say there would need to be a full political, ethical and scientific review before any such genetically-modified animals were released into the environment.

This point was emphasised by Chris Curtis, professor of medical entomology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

"I think one should have concern for the remote possibility that the modifications could make the mosquitoes able to carry a virus that they cannot carry at present," he told the BBC.

"And of course one thinks about HIV. Certainly any females - only females bite - with the transgenic technology applied to them should be tested for their susceptibility to infection by dangerous viruses before they are released. Those tests could be done, and should be done."

Circular molecules

The European team introduced a piece of foreign DNA into mosquito eggs, which then "jumped" into the chromosomes of the larvae.

Mos Nature
Fluorescence merely indicates the technique works
The DNA, contained on circular molecules called plasmids, included the code for a fluorescent protein, which makes the mosquitoes glow an eerie green when they are exposed to ultraviolet light.

The glow has no use other than to show researchers very quickly which of their experiments have been successful. Other, more useful genes would have to be introduced to make the mosquitoes immune to the malaria parasite.

Although other insects have been modified in this way before, mosquitoes have proved especially resistant to the technique.

This is because the DNA is injected into freshly laid mosquito eggs and these harden very quickly, making micro-injection extremely difficult.

Dr Crisanti BBC
Dr Crisanti: Ethical review required
"Our secret is that we have treated the egg with a compound so that its maturation process is delayed," Dr Crisanti said. "This keeps the egg shell soft and makes it still possible to penetrate with a needle and inject the DNA."

The work was done on Anopheles stephensi, one of the major carriers of malaria in urban areas of India. It will also be tried on Anopheles gambiae, the principal carrier of malaria in sub-Saharan Africa, where 90% of all malaria cases occur - an estimated one million deaths a year.

Scientists are hopeful that genetic engineering will help them overcome some of the problems now being encountered by health agencies.

The malaria parasite is becoming resistant to the most commonly used drugs, and control of mosquito populations is being hampered by resistance to insecticides.

One of the most effective chemicals, DDT, has been withdrawn in some regions because of concerns about its long-term environmental impact.

Risks and benefits

Dr Susan Mayer of GeneWatch, which campaigns on the ethics of genetic engineering, said the risks and benefits of releasing GM mosquitoes into the wild would have to be carefully examined.

"I think as the scientists are saying these are very early stages and there is a lot more that needs to be done," she told the BBC.

"There are some very practical questions about whether you can change a population of malaria mosquitoes on a large scale, which is what you would have to do. And there will be ecological questions too.

"But malaria is an important, damaging disease and we have to find new solutions to it. This may be one way - there may be better ways. We need to take a broad look at it."

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