I hate to admit it, but I kind of like the idea of genetically altering mosquitoes — or the bacteria they carry around — to fight disease.
I’m enough of a geek to think this is cool stuff and, frankly, I am not that fond of mosquitoes. But then I start to worry about how this could impact my own bacteria … Tom Paulson the microbiome.
I’ll explain that shortly, but first it needs to be said that this once-novel idea of producing GM skeeters is no longer so novel.
Turns out, lots of labs are now working on some variation of genetic modification in mosquitoes aimed at undermining the bug’s ability to spread disease whether it be malaria, dengue or some other ‘vector-borne’ illness. I seem to read a story about genetically modified mosquitoes every other week. The Gates Foundation funds a number of these projects.
So the media may still think this approach is new, wacky and weird. But it isn’t really. I can’t seem to find a comprehensive list of all the US-based projects for genetically modifying insects, but here’s an old but good overview by the Pew Charitable Trust and a more recent European Union report listing thousands of such projects or proposed projects.
Perhaps the best story of late on GM skeeters is by Michael Specter, in the New Yorker — about Oxitec‘s GM mosquito factory in Brazil. (Non-subscribers have to pay to read it, but it’s well worth the price).
Another such project was reported recently by scientists at Johns Hopkins University (my alma mater), in which a common bacterium found in the guts of these bugs was altered to secrete proteins toxic to the malaria parasite. They report that these toxins harm neither humans or mosquitoes.
I haven’t read their paper so I can’t tell how they tested the human toxicity. Chances are, it was a fairly quick test that looked at immediate harm to human cells or something like that. The problem here is that, when it comes to testing human harm, these quick toxicity tests may be almost meaningless. Continue reading