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Controlling the genetics of wild populations, a next step in GM research
August 14, 2014 8:03 AM   Subscribe

New GM technique injects mosquitoes with a gene that results in mostly male offspring, eventually leading to a population crash. Previous efforts to tackle the disease, that kills more than 1 million people each year – most of whom are African children – have included bed nets to protect people and insecticides to kill the mosquito species most responsible for the transmission of malaria (Anopheles gambiae). The new technique by a team at Imperial College London involves injecting mosquitoes with a gene that causes the vast majority of their offspring to be male, leading to an eventual dramatic decline in population within six generations as females disappear. “You have a short-term benefit because males don’t bite humans [and transmit malaria],” Andrea Crisanti, one of the authors of the new research, which was published in the journal Nature Communications on Tuesday, told the Guardian. “But in the long term you will eventually eradicate or substantially reduce mosquitoes. This could make a substantial contribution to eradicating malaria, combined with other tools such as insecticides.”
These new mosquitoes are now set to be used in Brazil, having been approved for use by the Brazilian government with a factory for their production now opened.
A synthetic sex ratio distortion system for the control of the human malaria mosquito Nature Communications
It has been theorized that inducing extreme reproductive sex ratios could be a method to suppress or eliminate pest populations. Limited knowledge about the genetic makeup and mode of action of naturally occurring sex distorters and the prevalence of co-evolving suppressors has hampered their use for control. Here we generate a synthetic sex distortion system by exploiting the specificity of the homing endonuclease I-PpoI, which is able to selectively cleave ribosomal gene sequences of the malaria vector Anopheles gambiae that are located exclusively on the mosquito’s X chromosome. We combine structure-based protein engineering and molecular genetics to restrict the activity of the potentially toxic endonuclease to spermatogenesis. Shredding of the paternal X chromosome prevents it from being transmitted to the next generation, resulting in fully fertile mosquito strains that produce >95% male offspring. We demonstrate that distorter male mosquitoes can efficiently suppress caged wild-type mosquito populations, providing the foundation for a new class of genetic vector control strategies.
As traditional GM techniques become more useful for creatively tackling fundamentally ecological problems, we might also soon be getting another potent tool for manipulating population genetics in the wild - so called Gene Drives out of the scientific community associated with George Church, harnessing the power of CRISPR phage defence systems:

“Gene Drives” and CRISPR Could Revolutionize Ecosystem Management
With this guest blog post we want to share the key features of an innovative method for the high-precision genome editing of wild populations that has been outlined by our team at the Wyss Institute, Harvard Medical School, and the Harvard School of Public Health. Our technical description of the proposed method was published today in eLife, while an accompanying essay on regulation and governance was published today in Science. We aim to introduce the technology – well in advance of any concrete implementation – in order to start a public conversation on how we might collectively explore ways to responsibly develop and use it for the betterment of humanity and the environment.

An introduction to them by Carl Zimmer.
In papers published Thursday in the journals Science and eLife, scientists and policy experts propose fighting malaria in a new way: by genetically engineering the mosquitoes themselves. A new technology for editing DNA may allow scientists to render the insects resistant to the malaria parasite, the authors contend. Or it might be possible to engineer infertility into mosquito DNA, driving their populations into oblivion. The new technology could potentially be used against a wide range of other species that are deemed a threat, like invasive predators, herbicide-resistant weeds and bat-killing fungi.
Regulating gene drives Science
Genes in sexually reproducing organisms normally have, on average, a 50% chance of being inherited, but some genes have a higher chance of being inherited. These genes can increase in relative frequency in a population even if they reduce the odds that each organism will reproduce. Aided by technological advances, scientists are investigating how populations might be altered by adding, disrupting, or editing genes or suppressed by propagating traits that reduce reproductive capacity (1, 2). Potential beneficial uses of such “gene drives” include reprogramming mosquito genomes to eliminate malaria, reversing the development of pesticide and herbicide resistance, and locally eradicating invasive species. However, drives may present environmental and security challenges as well as benefits.

Concerning RNA-guided gene drives for the alteration of wild populations eLife
Gene drives may be capable of addressing ecological problems by altering entire populations of wild organisms, but their use has remained largely theoretical due to technical constraints. Here we consider the potential for RNA-guided gene drives based on the CRISPR nuclease Cas9 to serve as a general method for spreading altered traits through wild populations over many generations. We detail likely capabilities, discuss limitations, and provide novel precautionary strategies to control the spread of gene drives and reverse genomic changes. The ability to edit populations of sexual species would offer substantial benefits to humanity and the environment. For example, RNA-guided gene drives could potentially prevent the spread of disease, support agriculture by reversing pesticide and herbicide resistance in insects and weeds, and control damaging invasive species. However, the possibility of unwanted ecological effects and near-certainty of spread across political borders demand careful assessment of each potential application. We call for thoughtful, inclusive, and well-informed public discussions to explore the responsible use of this currently theoretical technology.
posted by Blasdelb (122 comments total) 36 users marked this as a favorite

 
So, uh, no one reads Tiptree?
posted by Lemmy Caution at 8:04 AM on August 14 [28 favorites]


"Brazilian mosquito factory" is now a valid, sense-making phrase.
posted by Iridic at 8:07 AM on August 14 [11 favorites]


So, uh, no one reads Tiptree?

Oh God, that is the most horrifying story I have ever read.
posted by Chrysostom at 8:16 AM on August 14 [3 favorites]


Is there any discussion of the role of the mosquito in the ecosystem? Would this affect bats and insect predators that eat mosquitoes? Or are their food sources diverse enough?
posted by mercredi at 8:17 AM on August 14 [25 favorites]


Yeah what are the unintended consequences of removing mosquitoes.
posted by stbalbach at 8:19 AM on August 14 [3 favorites]


Whatever the impact on predators' food supply, these techniques mean that we will not be pumping pesticides into them.
posted by No Robots at 8:20 AM on August 14 [5 favorites]


So what is the potential downside here? E.g., is there a role that mosquitos play in the larger ecosystem such that the eradication (or at least significant reduction of) mosquitos could cause larger ecological problems? Because this seems like the beginning of every story of mankind tinkering with nature only to discover that the tinkering was really a bad idea. (Note: I am all for having fewer mosquitos around, but not at the expense of, say, fewer songbirds, or fewer flowering bushes.)
posted by devinemissk at 8:20 AM on August 14 [1 favorite]


Haha, should have previewed.
posted by devinemissk at 8:20 AM on August 14


This is scary. And fascinating.

On natural predators.
posted by travelwithcats at 8:21 AM on August 14


What is the broader effect on an environment of removing mosquitoes from the biosphere?
posted by Keith Talent at 8:21 AM on August 14


They did something like this in an episode of ReGenesis a bunch of years back. Genetically alter mosquitoes to control the population, don't really think about the side effects. If I remember correctly the storyline was resolved in a satisfactorily Canadian way, but only after several people died.

Oh look! I found the script, here's a line from it:
Fuck off! What if we're dealing with a bunch of mosquitoes that flew too close to a nuclear power station and got radioactively-enhanced super mosquito powers, eh?
God I miss that show.
posted by phunniemee at 8:23 AM on August 14 [2 favorites]


"Is there any discussion of the role of the mosquito in the ecosystem? Would this affect bats and insect predators that eat mosquitoes? Or are their food sources diverse enough?"
There has been a significant amount of research on exactly this question,

Ecology: A world without mosquitoes
Eradicating any organism would have serious consequences for ecosystems — wouldn't it? Not when it comes to mosquitoes, finds Janet Fang.
posted by Blasdelb at 8:24 AM on August 14 [30 favorites]


Parasitic species keep populations of other species in check. So the unintended consequence will be intended: save humans.
posted by stbalbach at 8:25 AM on August 14 [9 favorites]


It isn't just bats. Many fish and amphibians depend on mosquito larvae.

That said I have only ever lived in placed where substantial mosquito populations were already devastated through deliberate habitat destruction for that express purpose.
posted by srboisvert at 8:26 AM on August 14


Also: the point of this effort is to eradicate a disease which is already trying to answer the question of "what is the consequence for the ecosystem of removing poor African children from the ecosystem?"

The World Health Organization estimates that in 2010, there were 219 million documented cases of malaria. That year, the disease killed between 660,000 and 1.2 million people,[1] many of whom were children in Africa.
posted by chavenet at 8:27 AM on August 14 [12 favorites]


Malaria is the worst. It put me in the hospital for a week, and I'm a generally healthy, well-nourished American 26-year-old who had only moderate plasmodium density in my blood. It makes my heart hurt to think of toddlers dying from this (preventable) disease - and if getting rid of mosquitoes who apparently don't do a whole lot from an ecosystem health perspective is what it takes, I'm all for it!
posted by ChuraChura at 8:31 AM on August 14 [6 favorites]


Mosquitos seem to enjoy the habitats provided by humans, with lots of pockets of standing water, so we've artificially assisted them. The approach of reducing females won't make them extinct, though the next evolutionary steps will be interesting. They are a scourge, and being free of them would be awesome.
posted by theora55 at 8:31 AM on August 14 [1 favorite]


Surely nothing could go wrong.
posted by LarryC at 8:34 AM on August 14 [1 favorite]


Ecology: A world without mosquitoes (Nature.com, 21 July 2010)
Eradicating any organism would have serious consequences for ecosystems — wouldn't it? Not when it comes to mosquitoes, finds Janet Fang.
...
What would happen if there were [no more mosquitoes]? Would anyone or anything miss them? Nature put this question to scientists who explore aspects of mosquito biology and ecology, and unearthed some surprising answers.
Long story short: it looks like the niches filled by mosquitoes in their various life stages could be filled by other insects that aren't vectors for malaria.
posted by filthy light thief at 8:35 AM on August 14 [8 favorites]


Lemmy Caution: So, uh, no one reads Tiptree?

Nope, they read former school teacher Raccoona Sheldon, a friend of Tiptree (both were actually Alice Bradley Sheldon).
posted by filthy light thief at 8:38 AM on August 14 [1 favorite]


Life, uh, finds a way.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 8:39 AM on August 14 [16 favorites]


Actually, there's a couple of paragraphs in that article which suggest that without any mosquitoes there are plants and animals which might be in trouble (pollination issues for the plants) but humans don't eat those plants, so whatevs, basically.

But I assume that eradicating the malaria mosquito isn't the same as eradicating every kind of mosquito, right?

I'm made much less anxious about getting rid of one kind of mosquito via genetic manipulation than I am about the next time or the time after that, when people are all "oh, there were no problems with the mosquito, we can totally get rid of [some other pest species]".

Also, I am a little concerned because this sounds like the kind of thing that will have relatively little popular input. Which, on the one hand, yes, people are dumb about genetics (and that certainly includes me) but on the other hand, the potential for terrible decision-making with no accountability is pretty large.
posted by Frowner at 8:40 AM on August 14 [5 favorites]


(Note: I am all for having fewer mosquitos around, but not at the expense of, say, fewer songbirds, or fewer flowering bushes.)

You realize malaria kills millions of people, right? I mean, always go forward with an abundance of caution, but I think I'll take fewer songbirds and bushes if it means significant reduction in malaria cases.
posted by kmz at 8:43 AM on August 14 [8 favorites]


When we're talking about the eradication of an entire species on Earth, shouldn't... like... humanity have a say in this?
posted by archagon at 8:45 AM on August 14 [3 favorites]


Well, once we get rid of the mosquitoes, if there is a negative impact on the ecosystem, we introduce a new GM strain of crickets to replace them as a food source. If those get out of control, we bring in the Chinese needle snakes, and then the snake-eating gorillas...
posted by xedrik at 8:46 AM on August 14 [12 favorites]


Brazil?

"Let's just go ahead and release these Africanized Honeybees" Brazil?
posted by merelyglib at 8:47 AM on August 14 [11 favorites]


They are removing a particular type of mosquitoes .. not all .. so lets not talking about a zombie apocalypse just yet.

On review: what Frowner said.
posted by TheLittlePrince at 8:47 AM on August 14 [1 favorite]


What could possibly go wrong?
posted by Chuffy at 8:53 AM on August 14 [2 favorites]


It's worth pointing out that the sterile-male technique for insect eradication isn't exactly novel. In fact, it's been done, successfully.

The rather horrifying Cochliomyia hominivorax, aka the screwworm fly, was eradicated from the United States using a sterile male technique, starting in the mid-1950s. It was mainly a cattle pest, and a really disgusting one at that.

They irradiated male flies to render them sterile, but the general principle is the same as what's being proposed for mosquitoes. You genetically damage the males so that they're sterile, and take advantage of the fact that females only mate once in their lifespan. If you release enough sterile males, you can eliminate the population.

And as far as I know, nothing terrible has resulted from the eradication of the fly in the US. Their ecological niche was outsized anyway, due to the number of farm cattle in their environment which would not have existed without human intervention, so it's arguable that the eradication actually restored the insect population back to something more "natural" anyway. (Of course, defining "natural" is problematic...) The niche currently enjoyed by mosquitoes is similarly exaggerated due to the number of humans on which they feed, so I think a similar argument holds. Getting rid of humans in order to reduce the mosquito population, while technically a valid solution, is probably not likely to be popular.

Plus, given the amount of pesticides that are currently used to control mosquito populations (including DDT, in some places), eliminating them might have positive ecological consequences on other species, since we'd no longer be needing to dump poison everywhere. Or intentionally contaminate standing water with kerosene to kill eggs (a time-honored solution). It's not like the tradeoff is between "kill the mosquitoes" and "live in harmony with the mosquitoes". It's between "kill the mosquitoes using this technique" and "kill the mosquitoes using some other, probably much more side-effect-laden, technique".
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:54 AM on August 14 [21 favorites]


unintended consequences

The most powerful force in the universe.
posted by klanawa at 8:55 AM on August 14 [4 favorites]


Before people continue to comment with vague fears and "Man knows not with what he tampers!" they probably should read the studies linked in this thread about the consequences of removing mosquitoes from the ecosystem.

When we're talking about the eradication of an entire species on Earth, shouldn't... like... humanity have a say in this?

In what way? WHO and the countries of the world conducted massive campaigns that wiped out smallpox and is closing in on wiping out polio, scourges that have killed and crippled countless millions. Is that adequate? This current campaign is being done by Brazil and is being studied by people around the world, and if there were a concerted global effort to crack down on mosquitoes it would be under a similar framework.

Malaria is a horrible disease that has killed more people than literally anything else in history, and currently continues decimate people in the poorest regions of the world. If it's true that eliminating mosquitoes that carry disease could be done without disastrous effects on the ecosystem, it seems the height of privilege for us to condemn millions of poor people to die because we fret over the possibility of having "fewer songbirds, or fewer flowering bushes".

It's easy for me sitting in my NYC apartment to debate the academic merits of a project like this because I don't have to worry about my family dying in agony of it.
posted by Sangermaine at 8:56 AM on August 14 [17 favorites]


xedrik: "Well, once we get rid of the mosquitoes, if there is a negative impact on the ecosystem, we introduce a new GM strain of crickets to replace them as a food source. If those get out of control, we bring in the Chinese needle snakes, and then the snake-eating gorillas..."

I *know* this was a story in Omni.
posted by Chrysostom at 8:56 AM on August 14


It's not like there's a campaign of eradicating the mosquito from the planet earth altogether- just from areas with human settlements that have a malaria problem. This isn't intentional extinction, just a more effective method of pest control. Mosquitos are already high on the list of worst things on earth- reducing malaria is a very nice bonus.
posted by BuddhaInABucket at 8:56 AM on August 14


"So what is the potential downside here? E.g., is there a role that mosquitos play in the larger ecosystem such that the eradication (or at least significant reduction of) mosquitos could cause larger ecological problems? Because this seems like the beginning of every story of mankind tinkering with nature only to discover that the tinkering was really a bad idea. (Note: I am all for having fewer mosquitos around, but not at the expense of, say, fewer songbirds, or fewer flowering bushes.)
We're not talking about a significant reduction mosquitoes, we're talking about the eradication of the very specific mosquitoes that cause malaria out of the couple hundred that even bother to bite humans out of the few thousand that together have actually meaningful environmental impacts. Its not like the effect is at all unprecedented, these mosquitoes were already eradicated in the Southern United States and Mediterranean Europe - saving lives by the hundreds of millions - through extensive habitat destruction and the spraying of genuinely awful insecticides. The only population that will be meaningfully reduced aside from these very specific mosquitoes will be dead children, who are currently dying by the hundred of millions, I think we could use less of them too.

If we can eradicate malaria from the face of the Earth, and it looks like we can, it will join the eradication of Smallpox and the management of Wheat Rust as the greatest thing mankind has ever done. Its certainly worth a little education in genetics.
posted by Blasdelb at 8:57 AM on August 14 [21 favorites]


You realize malaria kills millions of people, right? I mean, always go forward with an abundance of caution, but I think I'll take fewer songbirds and bushes if it means significant reduction in malaria cases.

My fear is that the ultimate outcome of this kind of prioritisation is approximately zero birds, zero bushes and zero human beings.

I don't entirely trust our caution when it comes to interventions as big as these. We've a bad track record on ecosystems. But I'd love to be wrong.
posted by distorte at 8:57 AM on August 14 [5 favorites]


Anything on what this could mean for dengue fever?
posted by viggorlijah at 8:59 AM on August 14


So, it sounds like it may actually be better for the environment and mosquito predators, if we can replace larger scale insecticide use and insect reduction techniques for this targeted approach.
posted by mercredi at 9:01 AM on August 14 [1 favorite]


"Anything on what this could mean for dengue fever?"
All of the same principles apply, the current effort in Brazil is specifically targeting Dengue carrying mosquitoes.
posted by Blasdelb at 9:02 AM on August 14 [1 favorite]


Well, diseases are nature's way to regulate itself. People dying is sad but at the same time this is how it works. We have to be realistic about the resources we have available, at 7 billion people water and cropland become scarce. This earth can only accommodate so much population growth, and particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, where most of Malaria-related deaths occur, life is not as rosy.
From Wikipedia:
"In Africa, if current trends of soil degradation and population growth continue, the continent might be able to feed just 25% of its population by 2025, according to UNU's Ghana-based Institute for Natural Resources in Africa.[194]

Hunger and malnutrition kill nearly 6 million children a year, and more people are malnourished in sub-Saharan Africa this decade than in the 1990s, according to a report released by the Food and Agriculture Organization. In sub-Saharan Africa, the number of malnourished people grew to 203.5 million people in 2000–02 from 170.4 million 10 years earlier says The State of Food Insecurity in the World report. In 2001, 46.4% of people in sub-Saharan Africa were living in extreme poverty.[195]
"

Conventional methods, like the already mentioned mosquito nets and education, helped to reduce Malaria-related mortality rates by 42% between 2000 and 2012. The number of Malaria-related deaths worldwide is closer to 600K now.
posted by travelwithcats at 9:02 AM on August 14 [3 favorites]


Personally, I would love to see all mosquitoes wiped out. Of course, any such campaign should be conducted incrementally, in order to fully assess any negative consequences. And, of course, there would have to be a captive population maintained for insurance purposes.

Man has been moving into the era of total biosphere management for a while now. Our wellbeing depends increasingly on developing competence in this area. This seems like a good place to hone our skills.
posted by No Robots at 9:05 AM on August 14


This is a pretty repulsive way to talk about people:
"Well, diseases are nature's way to regulate itself. People dying is sad but at the same time this is how it works."

The right way to deal with hunger and malnutrition is political, not Malthusian. We have real resource problems in the world today. The political solutions to those problems may or may not be ones we can achieve, but stepping back from working to cure diseases because they affect the same poor people who are affected by resource inequality is pretty evil.
posted by mercredi at 9:06 AM on August 14 [33 favorites]


Current state of the art for mosquito control (in Canada, at least) is biological, not a chemical agent. I'm certain that insecticidal fogging ands spays are still being used, but many municipalities have switched to primary larval control via BTi-infected cornmeal applications.
posted by bonehead at 9:07 AM on August 14 [1 favorite]


And as far as I know, nothing terrible has resulted from the eradication of the fly in the US.

Except that the birds that used to eat this fly took to eating children.
posted by GenjiandProust at 9:07 AM on August 14 [4 favorites]


This earth can only accommodate so much population growth, and particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, where most of Malaria-related deaths occur, life is not as rosy.

Reducing mortality rates (by eliminating large-scale killers like malaria) is actually critical to controlling overall population growth. People living in areas with a high risk of childhood death compensate by having more children to improve the odds that at least a couple will survive to adulthood.
posted by 0xFCAF at 9:08 AM on August 14 [26 favorites]


We have to be realistic about the resources we have available, at 7 billion people water and cropland become scarce.

People aren't starving in Africa or anywhere else because we've simply hit the carrying capacity of the Earth and can't support any more people, it's a matter of distribution and access.

Disease is a scourge, not something to be celebrated. If you really care about reducing hunger and poverty, then you should embrace anything that reduces infant mortality and raises standards of living, both of which are tried and true surefire ways of reducing population growth.
posted by Sangermaine at 9:10 AM on August 14 [11 favorites]


travelwithcats: "This earth can only accommodate so much population growth, and particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, where most of Malaria-related deaths occur, life is not as rosy. "

An effective way to reduce human populations is to increase the number of people who make it into adulthood.
posted by Mitheral at 9:11 AM on August 14 [1 favorite]


travelwithcats: "Well, diseases are nature's way to regulate itself. People dying is sad but at the same time this is how it works. We have to be realistic about the resources we have available, at 7 billion people water and cropland become scarce. This earth can only accommodate so much population growth, and particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, where most of Malaria-related deaths occur, life is not as rosy. ."

Putting aside the awful Malthusian implications of the rest of your post, my recollection of online Hans Rosling lectures child mortality and population growth are positively correlated. More infant deaths == higher population growth. So if more children survive into adulthood, we need fewer births per mother to support a steady population, and it's easier to plan. You've reduced the variance in family size, effectively.

There's also a feedback loop whereby you're motivated family's willingness to invest in children's human capital, and education is also correlated with family size.
posted by pwnguin at 9:13 AM on August 14 [3 favorites]


travelwithcats: "Well, diseases are nature's way to regulate itself. People dying is sad but..."
I can think of no clearer more eloquent definition of evil than this sentence and fragment typed from affluence into a computer.

Genocide, the murder of children by the millions through intentional inaction, is unspeakable. Letting the holocaust of malaria continue to maintain the western lifestyle and rosy imagining of African ecology, even if the logistics of that made any fucking sense - and they don't, is an intention so utterly horrific I have no idea of any of us could respond. I mean we could certainly talk about how reducing childhood mortality empowers women, lifts up societies, reduces family size, and in the end reduces ecological impacts - but that would seem to justify the murder of children by the millions through reckless inaction as simply impractical rather than what it really is, or at least leave it unacknowledged. Fuck that, fuck that so hard.

I hope the rest of your day finds more compassion in it.
posted by Blasdelb at 9:15 AM on August 14 [23 favorites]


From the Nature article linked by filthy light thief: There are 3,500 named species of mosquito, of which only a couple of hundred bite or bother humans.

So we're leaving the other 3,300 species of mosquito alone, right? I can get behind this.
posted by hydrophonic at 9:19 AM on August 14 [1 favorite]


I *know* this was a story in Omni.

Simpsons plot!
posted by fiercecupcake at 9:19 AM on August 14 [1 favorite]


Except that the birds that used to eat this fly took to eating children.

Who can blame them, though? Children are delicious.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:21 AM on August 14 [2 favorites]


"The new technique by a team at Imperial College London involves injecting mosquitoes with a gene. . ." A question comes to mind. How do they inject into a mosquito?
posted by Old Timer at 9:22 AM on August 14 [1 favorite]


Old Timer: ""The new technique by a team at Imperial College London involves injecting mosquitoes with a gene. . ." A question comes to mind. How do they inject into a mosquito?"
How does Oxitec make genetically modified mosquitoes?
To make a genetically modified mosquito, Oxitec’s scientists have to find a way of incorporating the new gene into the mosquito’s own DNA, from where it will be copied into every cell of the mosquito’s body. The process begins with mosquito eggs. These are tiny, cigar-shaped objects – about 1mm long. Using special glass needles, so sharp that the point can only be seen clearly under a high-powered microscope, Oxitec’s scientists can inject very small amounts of DNA into the end of a mosquito egg. The amount of DNA injected into each egg is miniscule – typically around 10 thousand-millionths of a litre!

Many of the eggs injected in this way won’t survive. In others, the DNA which is injected won’t be incorporated into the mosquito’s cells. But in a very few eggs, the new DNA will be taken up by the mosquito’s cells and will be cut and pasted into the mosquito’s own genome. If this happens in the sperm cells of a male mosquito, or the egg-producing cells of a female, the new DNA can be passed on to their offspring.

After being injected, the eggs are hatched, and the resulting mosquitoes carefully looked after until they reach adulthood. Then they are bred with other mosquitoes, and if the injected DNA has entered sperm or egg cells, then it will be passed on to their offspring. The DNA which was injected contains the lethal gene, but it also contains a fluorescent gene which allows the genetically modified mosquitoes to be identified using a special microscope. So Oxitec’s scientists can look at the offspring of the mosquitoes which were injected to identify those which contain the new DNA.

The scientists may have to inject thousands of mosquito eggs to obtain just one individual which has the new DNA incorporated into their genome. But from this single insect, a new strain of genetically modified mosquitoes can be made.
posted by Blasdelb at 9:28 AM on August 14 [7 favorites]


Old Timer: "How do they inject into a mosquito?"

See they get a mosquito to bite that mosquito and they then feed the first mosquito with the genes they want to be injected in the second mosquito .. and then they first mosquito bites the second mosquito ... so the genes are transferred through the injection like proboscis of the first mosquito .. and bob's your uncle.

Of course, if the second mosquito bites the first one .. then they have to kill them both and restart.
posted by TheLittlePrince at 9:29 AM on August 14


Nature balances populations, of course, and we've done a good job of messing with that. I'm in favor, because I likely owe my life, and my son's, to effective medical practices and antibiotics. If you want to balance the ecology of earth effectively, get rid of the worst offenders, namely US Americans, whose overconsumption genuinely endangers the planet. People dying of malaria is a tragedy, and if we choose not to act on it, we are less than human. Better to risk danger by saving lives than by trying to ensure that our corn patents are not violated.
posted by theora55 at 9:29 AM on August 14 [3 favorites]


Also, it might be worth keeping in mind that there may be cases in which the mosquito in question is not even native to many parts of the world where it currently lives. The mosquito that carries Dengue Fever and Chikungunya in the Caribbean (Aedes aegypti) was itself accidentally introduced from Africa during the slave trade. One could make an argument that it could be risky to eliminate it from its native range, but I doubt any biologist/conservationist would balk at eliminating it from areas where it was introduced.
posted by snofoam at 9:29 AM on August 14 [3 favorites]


Blasdelb, is that really the state of the art for GM? Wow. I figured they'd be all clever viral or RNA transcription by now. That seems really.... medieval.
posted by bonehead at 9:31 AM on August 14


Or you can decide to trust Blasdelb .. but I am better at abstract reasoning.
posted by TheLittlePrince at 9:31 AM on August 14 [1 favorite]


Those 3 year olds dying in Cote d'Ivoire and Ghana and South Africa shouldn't be the consequence of shrugging shoulders of the human race. If you want to minimize the impact of humans on the environment, the impact of Sub-Saharan Africa's booming population (which, in fact, is getting less and less booming all the time as access to family planning and education for women increase) is miniscule compared to our own impact in the global North.
posted by ChuraChura at 9:32 AM on August 14 [8 favorites]


Something like this sure would have made parts of a certain China Mieville novel a lot shorter and less tedious.
posted by gurple at 9:33 AM on August 14


travelwithcats: "Well, diseases are nature's way to regulate itself. People dying is sad but at the same time this is how it works."

Well, science is mankind's way of dealing with disease. People dying is usually a strong impetus to do something to make them stop dying.
posted by chavenet at 9:45 AM on August 14 [1 favorite]


That was an excellent novel, the mosquito people were creepy, gross and tragic, and I resent that comment very much.
posted by Frowner at 9:45 AM on August 14


Conventional methods, like the already mentioned mosquito nets and education

And pesticide.

Literal tons of pesticide are used for mosquito control.

Many of the pesticides used are toxic, both to humans and animals. One of the most effective methods of mosquito control in the past was DDT, and since it has become increasingly ineffective (outside the US and Europe the decline in use is not so much because of its effect on birds, but because mosquitoes become resistant over time) now the developing world is turning to other chemicals.

Neonicotinoid pesticides are the big new thing, and in the absence of some other mosquito control regime they'll probably be used heavily. They are quite toxic to bees and other beneficial insects. But they seem to work better than current insecticides (e.g. permethrin) alone. And permethrin, which is what's used heavily now, is pretty nasty stuff if you happen to be a fish.

But the chemicals are going to be used, and used heavily, because malaria is horrifying and people rightly prioritize themselves and their children and their communities over bees. And it's pretty goddamn rich for any first-world European or American to say jack shit about that, sitting as we are in a highly-terraformed environment where basically anything even remotely inconvenient for human life has been exterminated with extreme prejudice.

In addition to pesticide, there are lots of "conventional" approaches to mosquito eradication that are hugely deleterious to the environment. In the US, we managed our mosquito problems by outright destroying, through drainage efforts, about half of the wetlands in the continental US. (And I suspect the percentage of swamps drained in Europe is much higher, but they were done earlier.) So it's easy for us to talk about malaria as a problem that other people just have to suck it up and deal with, since we basically took the most ecologically destructive, brutal solution possible.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:46 AM on August 14 [18 favorites]


Genocide, the murder of children by the millions through intentional inaction, is unspeakable.

Yeah, I don't like paroxysms of splenetic misrepresentation much, either, FWIW.
posted by Segundus at 9:49 AM on August 14


travelwithcats: "Well, diseases are nature's way to regulate itself. People dying is sad but at the same time this is how it works. "

Volunteering, are you?
posted by vanar sena at 9:49 AM on August 14 [6 favorites]


In the US, we managed our mosquito problems by outright destroying, through drainage efforts, about half of the wetlands in the continental US.

That is an excellent point.
posted by Frowner at 9:50 AM on August 14 [1 favorite]


"Blasdelb, is that really the state of the art for GM? Wow. I figured they'd be all clever viral or RNA transcription by now. That seems really.... medieval."
While the techniques they are using are basically all over forty years old now, what they're using them to do is ridiculously clever and awesome. I will try to define terms for those following along.

They are using a new homing endonuclease, a protein that detects specific sequences in DNA and then cleaves the fuck out of it in that spot, which targets essential ribosomal genes found on the X chromosome of mosquitoes - shredding the chromosome. This would kill both male and female mosquitoes, however they used modern protein engineering to cause their endonuclease to only be expressed in sperm cells, selectively destroying only female sperm but allowing X-chromosome-less male sperm to create viable new male mosquitoes that are then perfectly healthy but contain sperm that is similarly selectively poisoned. The system doesn't work perfectly, and so they are still able to breed the mosquitoes in a lab environment, but it still obliterates uncontrolled populations.
A synthetic sex ratio distortion system for the control of the human malaria mosquito Nature Communications
It has been theorized that inducing extreme reproductive sex ratios could be a method to suppress or eliminate pest populations. Limited knowledge about the genetic makeup and mode of action of naturally occurring sex distorters and the prevalence of co-evolving suppressors has hampered their use for control. Here we generate a synthetic sex distortion system by exploiting the specificity of the homing endonuclease I-PpoI, which is able to selectively cleave ribosomal gene sequences of the malaria vector Anopheles gambiae that are located exclusively on the mosquito’s X chromosome. We combine structure-based protein engineering and molecular genetics to restrict the activity of the potentially toxic endonuclease to spermatogenesis. Shredding of the paternal X chromosome prevents it from being transmitted to the next generation, resulting in fully fertile mosquito strains that produce >95% male offspring. We demonstrate that distorter male mosquitoes can efficiently suppress caged wild-type mosquito populations, providing the foundation for a new class of genetic vector control strategies.
In the FPP I introduced what could be the new state of the art for GM in ecology, but I'm personally still pretty sceptical. George Church is pretty fucking insane, in a great way, but he often gets publicly excited about shit that doesn't actually work.
posted by Blasdelb at 9:51 AM on August 14 [2 favorites]


As a scientist and natural philosopher, I'm fascinated. As a citizen of a world dominated by the super-rich, I'm terrified.

This is a great example of why Neil DeGrasse Tyson's statement that GMOs are no different than the breeding of seedless watermelons was so dissapointingly, infuriatingly stupid. Comparing modern GM technology to traditional plant breeding is like comparing a camp fire to the Tsar Bomba.
posted by mondo dentro at 9:51 AM on August 14 [2 favorites]


Lest we forget...
posted by dragonsi55 at 9:57 AM on August 14


Sooooo... all we have to do now is create a virus that infects humans and prevents the fathering of female children, and we're good?

I presume we could actually do that now, if we wanted to. (For versions of we that do not, for the record, include me)...
posted by Devonian at 10:00 AM on August 14


Sooooo... all we have to do now is create a virus that infects humans and prevents the fathering of female children, and we're good?

The White Plague, by Frank Herbert, is pretty similar to this. Good book.
posted by Slinga at 10:09 AM on August 14 [3 favorites]


The idea is more to interrupt the cycle of transmission, as malaria lacks a non-mosquito reservoir (besides humans and chimps), after which you can reintroduce the mosquitos if you really want. Also, it's nothing irreversible, Esvelt has proposed an immunization mechanism that could rapidly reverse the anti-female gene drive.
posted by lakhim at 10:11 AM on August 14 [3 favorites]


Didn't they already test this with mosquitoes in Brazil for the World Cup in a bid to help prevent people from getting dengue fever?


For what it's worth, I'm pretty supportive of this. Had dengue fever earlier this year (actually rang in 2014 in the hospital!) and would not wish it upon my worst enemy. Rarely fatal in adults (unless you get a 2nd or 3rd time), but apparently super dangerous for kids. My experience was 10 days of awful fever (103 for a week straight. Nurses in the hospitals would throw ice packs at me because the acetaminophen didn't really work), terrible terrible joint pain in the hips and lower body for me (random joint pain lasted for 2-3 months after I was clear of dengue. Could barely walk in the mornings because all the joints in my feet hurt), random bleeding noses (probably the least awful symptom), godawful headache right that made my eyeballs feel like they wanted to explode, nausea so bad I barely ate for the 10 days in hospital, liver weirdness (blood tests took a few weeks to normalize) then 5 months of utter exhaustion, and 8 months and counting of shitty immune system that has been giving me flu-like bugs every other week so far...

I imagine malaria's probably worse.
posted by astapasta24 at 10:12 AM on August 14 [6 favorites]


Just a slight clarification. The sex ratio distortion work in Nature Communications is not the same as what Oxitec has been doing.

These new mosquitoes are now set to be used in Brazil, having been approved for use by the Brazilian government with a factory for their production now opened.

The mosquitoes in the above are produced using a technique that inserts a gene into them kills either all males or all mosquitoes (depending on the specific variant) before they reach maturity unless they receive a supplement.
They then breed millions of them by giving them a supplement and release the males into the wild.
The males mate with the wild females, all the offspring die before reaching maturity (since they're not receiving the supplement).

This is the technique which now has commercial approval in Brazil, not the sex ratio distortion technique which is much newer.
posted by atrazine at 10:46 AM on August 14 [2 favorites]


Old Timer: "How do they inject into a mosquito?"

Well, they tried crossing it with a mountain climber, but it turns out you can't do that...

If you get this joke, you are probably a STEM major.
posted by maryr at 10:46 AM on August 14 [2 favorites]


If you want to balance the ecology of earth effectively, get rid of the worst offenders, namely US Americans, whose overconsumption genuinely endangers the planet.

Yeesh, what is with this thread and calls for genocide of various groups.

Better to risk danger by saving lives than by trying to ensure that our corn patents are not violated.

The pushback isn't coming from the rightwing corporate crowd, it's coming, as you can see from this thread, the environmentalist crowd who has always seemed comfortable with and even oddly enthusiastic for the death of millions of humans as a sort of environmental Rapture that will punish us for our sins and usher in a pristine new world.

So what if the bulk of people who suffer and die to save the planet are in Africa and other poor places? Not their problem, and it's just Nature working its magic, after all.
posted by Sangermaine at 10:47 AM on August 14 [1 favorite]


For what it's worth, I'm pretty supportive of this.

I, too, am supportive of this, astapata24. And I'm so sorry to hear about your illness with dengue fever. I haven't had it, but I have two friends who have, and it sounds beyond dreadful. I have zero doubt that If I were in a position of authority on the front lines fighting malaria or other mosquito-born diseases, it's something I'd want to use (speaking as very much as a non-expert). The ability to avoid mass poisoning of the land, if true, is a plus.

So it's not this particular application of the tech that freaks me out. What triggered me was jumping from targeted applications to "ecosystem management": given humanity's abysmal track record at thinking through the consequences of our widely deployed powerful technologies, that just gives me the heebee jeebees.

But... really great FPP. It will take me a while to digest the material. Maybe when I do I'll calm down!

The pushback isn't coming from the rightwing corporate crowd, it's coming, as you can see from this thread, the environmentalist crowd who has always seemed comfortable with and even oddly enthusiastic for the death of millions of humans as a sort of environmental Rapture that will punish us for our sins and usher in a pristine new world.

Nice slander, Sangermaine.
posted by mondo dentro at 10:51 AM on August 14 [2 favorites]


I think my main concern is whether eliminating one species of mosquito would just let another species take over.
posted by empath at 10:52 AM on August 14


What could possibly go wrong?

On the scale of the Holocene extinction already in progress, a species of mosquito and 200 species of Plasmodium won't have much impact either way, probably.
posted by Mr. Six at 10:58 AM on August 14 [10 favorites]


Nice slander, Sangermaine.

It's in writing so it's libel, my friend.

But it's neither. This very thread contains creepy support for mass death in the name of the environment, some of which I quoted above. You always see this in threads like these. There's a weird apocalyptic religious element to the environmental movement that seems to view what's going on as a morality play.
posted by Sangermaine at 11:08 AM on August 14 [7 favorites]


We're not talking about a significant reduction mosquitoes, we're talking about the eradication of the very specific mosquitoes that cause malaria

Malaria is not caused by the mosquitoes in question - just carried by them. If "the purpose of nature" is to "find a way for malaria" to survive a jump from the mosquitoes in question to something else should be the result.

Taking that one mosquito out of the biosphere still leaves shallow water waiting to have other mosquito larvae in it and other 'skeeters to take a bite of you. Why wouldn’t any of the other mosquitoes take up that bio-niche instead? (and once displaced from the bio-niche how would survives make a comeback?)

A study of the shift of mosquito population should have been done due to the TIger mosquito brought into Texas 15-20 years ago as an example of a shift in the bio-landscape.

it will join the eradication of Smallpox

Aren't humans now at the point where one could just recreate Smallpox from knowing the published DNA sequence? And if we are not, won't we soon be?

Just in time 3D printing of a mosquito, the dodo or a wooly mammoth is still a few years off let alone the printing of an protozoa.
posted by rough ashlar at 11:15 AM on August 14 [1 favorite]


It's in writing so it's libel, my friend.

Your pedantry aside, if you said that to my face, I'd be hard pressed to consider you a friend.

Sure, in a different context you and I could both enjoy talking about the secular Rapturists you're referring to. It's a very apt name for what is a very small minority of environmentalists. A minority, I'd add, that has pretty much zero financial and political support.

But now let's put the shoe on the other foot: every time anyone criticizes biotech--including, and this is the point, those among the vast majority of non-eco-Rapturists--the corporate whores and minions, a very well remunerated and "respectable" bunch, pop out to label the environmentalists as elitists who choose Nature over Humanity, and who just "oddly" seem to revel in human death and suffering. It's corporate shilling 101, "my friend".

So, if you want to scold people about not caring about mass death, then you'll have to bring into the discussion the mass death that has been, and that will be brought about be the very industrial processes and technologies you seem to feel so smug about supporting. That would be a real conversation.

Or, you could go to plan B, and just accuse me of being a Luddite.
posted by mondo dentro at 11:24 AM on August 14 [2 favorites]


then you'll have to bring into the discussion the mass death that has been, and that will be brought about be the very industrial processes and technologies you seem to feel so smug about supporting.

But this is the very vague fear-mongering I'm talking about. For this particular approach, what particularly do you have reason to think will happen? The science behind it is sound, and studies seem to show that the greatest danger, harm to the ecosystem, won't occur or at least not in any significant way. Not to mention that this is only about eradicating certain types of mosquitoes, not all.

Sure, there's a non-zero chance that something could go wrong, but there's good reason to think this will work, and in this case working could mean saving millions. Are vague fears worth more than that?

If you've got some actual evidence or research showing why this is a bad idea, please share it.
posted by Sangermaine at 11:30 AM on August 14 [4 favorites]


For this particular approach, what particularly do you have reason to think will happen?

Now I'm just starting to question your reading comprehension.
posted by mondo dentro at 11:33 AM on August 14


[Knock it off, you two.]
posted by restless_nomad at 11:38 AM on August 14 [2 favorites]


Just in time 3D printing of a mosquito, the dodo or a wooly mammoth is still a few years off let alone the printing of an protozoa.

No. Just no.
posted by maryr at 11:45 AM on August 14


:( - here I was thinking this would be a nice uncontroversial thread where I could express support for less humans dying in agony from malaria. Nope, apparently everyone is a corporate neoliberal shill or an evangelical eco-rapturist. Nuance and empathy be damned

Sad.
posted by Another Fine Product From The Nonsense Factory at 11:46 AM on August 14 [3 favorites]


So what if the bulk of people who suffer and die to save the planet are in Africa and other poor places? Not their problem, and it's just Nature working its magic, after all.

As The Blue has a history of discussing racism often I'll leave this quote for others to consider:
Because of malaria. Europeans were much more susceptible to the disease, which flourished in hot and humid areas, roughly below the Mason-Dixon line. But Africans were not.
posted by rough ashlar at 11:48 AM on August 14


Life, uh, finds a way.

Yup. First thing I thought was "hmm, mosquito life cycle is incredibly short, a single hot wet summer maybe represents tens of generations. lots of genetic pressure plus short life cycles gives you antibiotic resistance in a few years after antibiotics are introduced. sure the mosquito population will crash and that's good, but how long until the survivors develop the ability to accomplish reproduction another way?"

*not saying this is a good thing, not advocating death of African children. down with mosquitoes, but it might be harder than we think
posted by slow graffiti at 12:09 PM on August 14 [1 favorite]


In principle, reducing the planet's overall biodiversity is a bad thing, on the whole. On the other hand, as global warming progresses, tropical diseases will spread further out through the latitudes.

Further, pharmaceutical companies like GSK, Novartis and others have been busy for some time researching drug targets that interfere with different stages of the Plasmodium life cycle.

These therapies are expensive, have deleterious side effects, and the target organisms develop resistance on an ongoing basis, which continually complicates deployment protocols in regions often afflicted by war, poverty, corrupt governance, etc.

Developing non-therapeutic ways to manage the spread of tropical diseases by controlling their insect vectors, even at the cost of continued lost biodiversity, might help humanity do a better job at surviving the changes to come.
posted by Mr. Six at 12:19 PM on August 14 [3 favorites]


Who cries for the ecological absence of smallpox, or rinderpest?
posted by Apocryphon at 12:41 PM on August 14 [2 favorites]


Who cries for the ecological absence of smallpox,

The people who may have it stored as biological weapons?
posted by rough ashlar at 12:43 PM on August 14


Hopefully tiger Mosquitos will be next.
posted by humanfont at 12:44 PM on August 14


Ya'll have convinced me this is a Good Thing.

Can we get rid of roaches next? I'm pretty sure they take up way too much of the ecosphere thanks to us, don't do much good for anything, and also spread disease. Does anything much even eat them? Aside from [shudder] other roaches.
posted by emjaybee at 12:55 PM on August 14


all we have to do now is create a virus that infects humans and prevents the fathering

How about growing corn that causes the human female immune system to treat sperm as something to be attacked and killed?

Would that do ya?
posted by rough ashlar at 1:09 PM on August 14


I get they're taking it further, but the female immune system already does that.
posted by agregoli at 1:22 PM on August 14 [2 favorites]


Can someone explain why this variant won't just weed its way out of the population like any harmful mutation?
posted by grobstein at 1:42 PM on August 14 [2 favorites]


okay but how will this affect future dinosaur cloning efforts
posted by elizardbits at 1:50 PM on August 14 [3 favorites]


No more dinosaurs with malaria, I'm afraid.
posted by maryr at 1:52 PM on August 14


In a radiolab episode about this, I remember the point that mosquitoes complicate how fast and easy it is to cut down rainforest for cultivation. Getting rid of them could make it easier.
posted by umbú at 1:56 PM on August 14 [3 favorites]


rough ashlar: "How about growing corn that causes the human female immune system to treat sperm as something to be attacked and killed?

Would that do ya?
"
You've misinterpreted that article or, googling it and finding genetically illiterate nonsense on /r/conspiracy, had it misinterpreted for you.

What Epicyte have done is make a variant of corn that itself produces antibodies, components of the human immune system, that are targeted against sperm. Understanding how this works, and its relationship to human immunity, will require a little introduction.

Our adaptive immune systems work in a really cool way that should, in theory, protect us from an infinite number of potential pathogens but has a few significant drawbacks. As the white blood cells that mediate the adaptive immune response get made they each are born with a completely new antibody through a very randomized process that has a very specific and very random shape on the business end that could, in theory, bind to anything. These antibodies are how our bodies recognize foreign invaders that have some means of evading our innate immune systems, and in theory there are enough white blood cells running around our bodies that one of them will have an antibody that will be effective. One white blood cell though is not enough to meaningfully fight off an infection, and so whenever a mature white blood cell encounters something that triggers its antibody it immediately races back to a lymph node and starts dividing like crazy to make enough cells to eliminate the infection. Then, once the infection is cleared, almost all of the new clones of the effective will trigger themselves for death to make room for new white blood cells. One of the big draw backs to the fantastically complex process that is the adaptive immune system is how long it takes to get going, so a significant portion of them will change in such a way as to protect themselves from degradation and remain as a reservoir of memory cells waiting in case the infection ever comes back such that the process has a big head start the second time. This is the biggest reason why when people get sick with infections they then get better as well as why people don't tend to get sick from the same thing twice.

So a corn based jelly, or just the corn, containing antibodies made to be targeted to sperm will not cause the human immune system to do much of anything beyond potentially supporting the antibodies through their short lifespan, particularly if someone was foolish enough to just eat it. It would simply act as a potentially very effective but short lived contraceptive gel, though I'd be skeptical of whether it could be as effective as condoms much less hormonal methods.
posted by Blasdelb at 2:08 PM on August 14 [8 favorites]


You've misinterpreted that article or, googling it and finding genetically illiterate nonsense on /r/conspiracy, had it misinterpreted for you.

Not at all on either points.

But thanks for trying to frame things that way.
posted by rough ashlar at 2:12 PM on August 14 [1 favorite]


How about growing corn that causes the human female immune system to treat sperm as something to be attacked and killed?

There are so many reasons that that corn is not a threat.
  • There's not a lot of wild corn just growing in puddles in parking lots. Corn requires purposeful cultivation and propagation.
  • Epicyte was proposing clinical trials 13 YEARS AGO in the article you linked and a simple Google search suggests that the company no longer exists twice over. I don't see any evidence that anyone is still producing this corn.
  • I suspect this was because it was not economically viable to produce spermicidal antibodies in this way. This could have been simple economics (corn is a lot more expensive now than it was in 2001), policy/business (they never got permission to run the field trial, they ran out of money before they got to market), or biology (the corn didn't grow well outside the greenhouse, the antibodies weren't produced in high enough concentration to both purifying, the antibodies didn't work as well when grown in corn). It is a long, long way from proof of concept to marketable product.
  • That corn does not cause female immune system to attack sperm, it produces sperm antibodies. It is meant to be processed into a contraceptive jelly or some such. Ingesting a spermicide is not how they work. They require application. Besides which, ingesting these antibodies would most likely destroy them in stomach acid.
  • Let's pretend the antibodies survive the stomach acid. That doesn't mean they are now active in your system. At least, I don't think so - someone with more medical background than me can correct me here. This is admittedly my weakest argument here. (Related: per Wikipedia, "Lemon juice solutions have been shown to immobilize sperm in the laboratory". Drinking lemon juice will not prevent you from getting pregnant.)
  • Let's pretend the antibodies survive the stomach acid AND someone make it to the vagina and attack or inactivate sperm. There is still no guarantee that they would survive any processing efforts - that is to say, to work, you might be constrained to eating fresh corn from the farmer or grocer. Fresh raw corn. Even boiling could denature the antibodies. Any sort of mass distribution would really require the antibodies survive processing in the form of cornmeal or a cornmeal product.
  • And finally, to answer your question:
    Would that do ya?
    Are you telling me that I can have use some Fritos as birth control? I can be sterile by snacking, not by taking a medication every day, not by using a condom every time I have sex, not by having invasive surgery, but with some corn by-product? Yes. Yes, that would do me.
posted by maryr at 2:14 PM on August 14 [6 favorites]


As usual, Blasdelb put it much more eloquently.
posted by maryr at 2:15 PM on August 14


grobstein: natural selection can't work on a population of zero.

Also, as I understand it, the objective is not to drive mosquitoes to extinction everywhere, but to reduce their numbers drastically in areas where humans live. Then we can get to the now substantially fewer malaria cases and treat them, thus achieving the actual goal: eliminating the malaria-causing parasite transmitted by the mosquitoes.
posted by Spiegel at 2:16 PM on August 14


maryr: "Epicyte was proposing clinical trials 13 YEARS AGO in the article you linked and a simple Google search suggests that the company no longer exists twice over. I don't see any evidence that anyone is still producing this corn."
That'll teach me to take decades old news blurbs at face value.
posted by Blasdelb at 2:19 PM on August 14


Is the Brazilian government going to build schools/universities/trade programs to educate and train the children that will now live a longer life? Will the Brazilian government bolster social programs that provide adequate housing and healthcare? I mean, from what I've read/heard, most of the people who live in the sprawling favelas come from the areas most affected by dengue/malaria etc. precisely because there are very few opportunities there... Hopefully both issues can be tackled simultaneously.
posted by nikoniko at 2:20 PM on August 14


Google search suggests that the company no longer exists twice over.

Yes, because they were bought. (There was a bankruptcy in the mix someplace if my memory is correct)

I don't see any evidence that anyone is still producing this corn.
I suspect this was because it was not economically viable to produce spermicidal antibodies in this way.


Ahhh yes, the idea that markets rule all and dope slap us all about with their invisible hand. And all one has to do is look at the pile of money and one knows all.

Companies can have more than 1 product and 1 idea, don't ya know. Gosh, lets embrace the /r/conspiracy thinking (and having seen a mention or 2 of ebola vaccine coming from tobaco) - typing in epicyte ebola tobacco leads to links* like They worked for three years for Epicyte Pharmaceutical in San Diego. Then in 2003, they founded Mapp Biopharmaceutical in hopes of bringing plant-produced antibodies to clinical use.

Are you telling me that I can have use some Fritos as birth control?

It depends on how you opt to use them I would think. I believe there is a 34th rule for that.

The original poster frame was 'is there a genetic engineering way for human contraception' and I dug 'round in the news releases of 2001 for how humans can modify living things to do that. But like the size of the bag of off the shelf Fritos today and how one could mis-use that for contraception I leave that for the reader of The Blue to noodle out if the original question got answered by pointing out that there is a pathway for human sterility using GM'd things. It would seem that some people opted to go for a conspiracy label right out of the gate.

* I actually expected to see Alex Jones already having made a conspiracy out of the konrtaceptive korn to ebola.
posted by rough ashlar at 2:40 PM on August 14


That'll teach me to take decades old news blurbs at face value.

Point one - you and I already did a dance on The Blue about the existence of that corn.

Point two - a almost 14 year old press release allegedly shows capability of using GM to effect human reproduction. The original query was about forcing human sex selection for males and given how discussions fork and are allowed to fork here on The Blue a world of more human males then females has been demonstrated in populations where there are less human females then human males already. To circle that back 'round - if 'skeeters knew they were being played like that and had atom bombs the effects on the biosphere questions being asked would seem obvious.

But further discussion down this fork strikes me as metatalk fodder.
posted by rough ashlar at 2:52 PM on August 14


Not sure breathless conspiracy theories belong there either, really.
posted by elizardbits at 2:59 PM on August 14 [5 favorites]


Also, as I understand it, the objective is not to drive mosquitoes to extinction everywhere, but to reduce their numbers drastically in areas where humans live.

My understanding is the number of types of mosquitoes that can carry the malaria protozoa is very limited (I want to say a set of 1 but I'm guessing that is wrong).

Given humans live everyplace on the planet - that would be 'everywhere'.

thus achieving the actual goal: eliminating the malaria-causing parasite

And perhaps there are numbers and math shown in the links/discussion showing how many of the carrier mosquitoes can survive and break the chain of the parasite thus allowing both the "skeeters must live" crowd to be as happy as the "parasite must die" crowd. Odds are that is tied to the math done or going to be done on a "get rid of all the human attacking skeeters" project. Reagan-esque defence lasers have already been presented as a technofix so why not GMing the issue away?

The slippery slope here is expressed by the posters who want all mosquitoes dead along with cockroaches. Bioengineering away all things that offend human sensibility sounds like a strawman argument.
posted by rough ashlar at 3:15 PM on August 14


maryr: Are you telling me that I can have use some Fritos as birth control?

rough ashlar: It depends on how you opt to use them I would think. I believe there is a 34th rule for that.


Given the straightforward linear chain of thought I all but numbered to get to Fritos (a processed corn product) in my example, I think your rule 34 reference is at best a bad faith argument and at worse pretty much telling me to go fuck myself with some corn chips. I'm going to take a step back now and get some actual science done, but feel free to take this to MeTa. I'll be there. With GM popcorn.
posted by maryr at 3:33 PM on August 14 [3 favorites]


For those curious, the CDC (which was founded to eliminate malaria in the US, which is why it is located in Atlanta) has a nice history of malaria eradication in the US.

One obvious take home message: the result of dumping DDT pretty much everywhere (and doing quite a number on a lot of other living things in the process) was the killing of huge numbers of adult mosquitoes with malaria. Without any significant numbers of existing adult mosquitos with malaria in the US, the disease was extirpated. Mosquitos were not extirpated, even though non-malaria-carrying adult mosquitos were also killed in huge numbers by DDT (along with amphibians, birds, etc). My grandmother grew up in Middle Georgia in the 1920s and 30s and got malaria every summer of her childhood. I have never had malaria. There are plenty of mosquitos in Georgia, still.

So, yes, Anopheles gambiae might go extinct because of this. I'm an aquatic ecologist, but I also have human compassion within me, and this is a loss of biodiversity I can get behind. There are plenty of other mosquitos in their native area that do not carry malaria, and we already have ecosystems in the world that have survived the elimination of malaria and have not suffered ill effects as a result.
posted by hydropsyche at 4:22 PM on August 14 [2 favorites]


Given the straightforward linear chain of thought I all but numbered to get to Fritos

Given the 1st bullet point was:
There's not a lot of wild corn just growing in puddles in parking lots. Corn requires purposeful cultivation and propagation.

1) What the heck would BE "wild corn" - Corn having been selected by man over years and years. Genetic selection at the hands of man - but you know that because that is in your 1st point.

But as you are wanting to be seen as a SME then lets spend time here:
2) Various posters have expressed concern about the gene change being in the wild having unforseen effects. Now here you are talking about "purposeful cultivation and propagation" of corn implying that man's control over the GMO will have an effect and yet this same crop having its gene's played with has had the Starlink recall, the 2009 reporting from Mexico about GM contamination in traditional Mexican corn crops and the detection of BT based toxins in newborns blamed on GMOs.

Given 1 and 2 plus the laval stage of the mosquito in water being tied in I just assumed you were setting up a straw man on Fritos and gave you a response. I appologize that you were offended.

Keeping things more on topic however:
Given the honesty of large Corporations, how the "purposeful cultivation and propagation" has still resulted in the 2009 Mexican GM contamination claim, purposeful human handling of one GMO crop still resulted in the GMO crop in the food chain, and somehow BT is detected having in theory passed though various bio-filters to end up in newborn humans - why should the posters who've decided to question the effects of a man-made change not have their concerns addressed?
posted by rough ashlar at 4:24 PM on August 14


I'm an aquatic ecologist, but I also have human compassion within me, and this is a loss of biodiversity I can get behind.

As a SME for the sake of this topic - would there be a loss to the food web in things the target consumes and what consumes the target for its food or would all the other types of mosquitoes just move in such that the only bio-loser here be the protoza that causes malaria?

I can't think of any spot where Anopheles gambiae is that another mosquito isn't in competition of it - but is that a reasonable position to take?
posted by rough ashlar at 4:30 PM on August 14


But like the size of the bag of off the shelf Fritos today and how one could mis-use that for contraception I leave that for the reader of The Blue to noodle out if the original question got answered by pointing out that there is a pathway for human sterility using GM'd things. It would seem that some people opted to go for a conspiracy label right out of the gate.

They're making antibodies in corn that can be purified for use as a contraceptive. That's all. Kind of like extracting progesterone from yams or purifying recombinant proteins from bacteria. I mean, they use to obtain hormones from yams for contraception in the very early days of hormonal birth control. It's not like eating the corn will have much of an effect -- proteases in your stomach acid are going to chew up those antibodies anyway.

All this jumping around from manipulation of mosquito mating to other GMO's to human contraception/sterility... It's like going from point A to G while skipping scientific nuances that cannot be skipped.

How about growing corn that causes the human female immune system to treat sperm as something to be attacked and killed?

You definitely misinterpreted the article.
posted by extramundane at 4:30 PM on August 14


As a SME for the sake of this topic - would there be a loss to the food web in things the target consumes and what consumes the target for its food or would all the other types of mosquitoes just move in such that the only bio-loser here be the protoza that causes malaria?

I can't think of any spot where Anopheles gambiae is that another mosquito isn't in competition of it - but is that a reasonable position to take?


Yeah, for the most part, a mosquito is a mosquito to the things that eat them, whether we're talking about predators of the larvae or the adults. And there are many species of mosquitos in the places where Anopheles gambiae lives.

The females of the species seem to preferentially feed on people (likely one reason they're such a great carrier for Plasmodium), and we're fine with them being gone. The males suck fluids out of plants--is that an important niche? Would there be some impact on the native flora if A. gambiae were no longer sucking their juices? It is hard to say.
posted by hydropsyche at 4:40 PM on August 14 [2 favorites]


grobstein: natural selection can't work on a population of zero.

Also, as I understand it, the objective is not to drive mosquitoes to extinction everywhere, but to reduce their numbers drastically in areas where humans live. Then we can get to the now substantially fewer malaria cases and treat them, thus achieving the actual goal: eliminating the malaria-causing parasite transmitted by the mosquitoes.


This does not really answer my question.

The wild population of gambiae is very large. I don't even begin to know how to guess. Billions? Trillions? And they have very short life cycles. Given that sex ratios are under selective pressure, how many sex-distorted mosquitoes do you have to dump into those populations in order to decimate them? Can that be practically done? Wild populations probably don't "mix" completely; what effect will population structure have on this?

The researchers used "over-flooding ratio of 3X" in their population suppression experiments, meaning (as far as I can tell) that for every 1 wild male in their experimental populations, they added 3 sex-distorted males.

That seems like a lot to me. If the scale of actual wild populations is pretty large, how can they make a dent in it?

I'm asking out of actual curiosity. I know that, while this particular technique is new, we already use transgenic pests for pest population control. What makes the numbers add up?
posted by grobstein at 10:55 PM on August 14


It's important not just to focus on mortality; malaria had a vast number of knock on effects because of its recurrent nature and the way it wipes people out. It affects working capacity, which in turn affects nutrition in Boggabilla and educational opportunities for children. It increases crime and destitution, and more. Bill Gates didn't pick it just for fun, he weighed up the decision and found it was something that makes a huge difference in living people's lives, not just dead ones. Which renders your reasoning a little flawed, travelwithcats.
posted by smoke at 12:17 AM on August 15 [3 favorites]


Yes, we have trucks spraying DDT through the streets of Delhi during the monsoons. I imagine that that probably has a wider ecological effect than getting rid of one specific subspecies of mosquito.
posted by vanar sena at 6:09 AM on August 15 [5 favorites]


Sort of like the "Screw Fly Solution" then? Great...
posted by Renoroc at 10:17 AM on August 15


It warms my heart to see so many scientists behind the mosquito genocide initiative. The day the last mosquito dies will be the greatest day in human history. I will run outside naked at dawn and lie down next to a dirty puddle of water without fear. All will be well.

Also I've heard it will help against some disease called "manaria" (sp?).
posted by dgaicun at 4:28 AM on August 16 [1 favorite]


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