Could Genetically Engineered Insects Squash Mosquito-Borne Diseases?


Transgenic female mosquitoes expressing a fluorescent protein (glowing blue) and nontransgenic mosquitoes (no color). Image courtesy of A.A. James

Science Friday airs on WSQX Fridays from 2:00-4:00pm.

For nearly two decades, scientists have discussed the prospect of genetically engineering mosquitoes as a means to control malaria. Last year, two teams of researchers demonstrated that it’s now technologically feasible. One team, at Imperial College London, engineered a “selfish gene” into mosquitoes, which spread through more than 90 percent of offspring and crippled egg production.

Another study, by Anthony James and his colleagues at the University of California, used the same technique, called CRISPR-Cas9, to inject an anti-malarial gene into mosquitoes, which allowed them to fight off the parasite.

But what effect would this have in the real world, and how will citizens in mosquito-affected countries react to the introduction of genetically engineered insects? Kevin Esvelt, an evolutionary engineer at MIT, and James join Ira for a look at the technical and ethical concerns that accompany these ecology-altering inventions.

Segment Guests: Kevin Esvelt is an Assistant Professor in the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Anthony James is a Distinguished Professor in the Departments of Microbiology & Molecular Genetics and Molecular Biology & Biochemistry at the University of California, Irvine.