BETHLEHEM, Penn. — For those in poverty, the danger of becoming sick with even the most non-fatal disease is a constant worry. Faced with unsanitary conditions and a lack of basic healthcare, a simple cough can quickly become life threatening. Malaria, a lethal disease that begins with fever and headache and often leads to death or coma, kills more than a million people every year.
Malaria can only be transmitted by mosquitoes. As a result, it is most prevalent in sub-tropical climates. Contracting malaria is particularly acute in Africa, where conditions allow mosquitoes to thrive and spread the disease. Ninety percent of cases worldwide are documented in Africa.
Researchers may have found a breakthrough that could help drastically reduce the spread of malaria. Scientists at the Imperial College London have injected a gene into male mosquitoes that shreds the X chromosome during sperm production, leading the majority of the offspring to be male. The researchers then released the modified males into cages of normal mosquitoes and saw that, after a number of generations, the mosquito population crashed, unable to sustain itself due to the lack of females.
One of the most promising elements of the procedure is its self-sustaining effect. Once the modified mosquitoes are introduced, there is little that needs to be done afterward. The population will decrease as fewer females are born. In addition, male mosquitoes do not bite humans, so the removal of females further reduces the transmission of malaria.
Another benefit of the genetic approach is its precision. The use of pesticides kills mosquito species that do not transmit malaria and other insects. By using the genetic method, the collateral damage is reduced while being more effective at addressing the malaria problem.
A potential area to further investigate is a system that affects the Y chromosome. With modifications to the Y chromosome, it would only take one single mosquito to eradicate an entire population. Because all males will inherit the genes of their father, the effect will not be diluted and would quickly spread through the entire population.
The procedure is still in development and will require further testing before it can be used for field trials. However, researchers have begun to raise the question of extinction. The implications of the modified mosquitoes could very well result in extinction for the specific mosquito species that spreads malaria.
Although the mosquito does not function as the keystone in its ecosystems, there potential for another, more dangerous species to come in and fill the niche.
This breakthrough comes at an extremely vital time. Although many new control and prevention measures have been implemented, mosquitoes’ increasing resistance to insecticides and the malaria parasites’ drug resistance have allowed the disease to continue on a global scale.
Malaria has the notorious distinction of a disease associated with poverty. However, research has found that not only are malaria and poverty often found together, but malaria is a cause for poverty.
The economic costs of malaria are enormous. Poverty conditions make malaria much more difficult to prevent and treat. The healthcare costs alone are massive. A huge step for reducing poverty around the world is finding an effective solution to eradicating malaria, and this genetic approach may be the solution that millions around the world need to escape poverty.
– William Ying
Sources: BBC, The Guardian, The Telegraph, NBC News, Institute for the Study of Labor