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Scientists Could Wipe Out Zika-Carrying Mosquitoes Starting One Year From Now

ByTim De ChantNOVA NextNOVA Next

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Zika’s explosive spread could hasten the development of a controversial new technology, one that could eliminate the mosquitoes that carry the virus.

Using the gene editing technique CRISPR-Cas9, scientists have been working on inserting genes that can spread rapidly throughout wild populations into Zika-carrying

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Aedes mosquitoes. Typically, genes have a 50-50 chance of being passed on to their offspring. Gene drives all but guarantee a gene will be inherited, even if it’s deleterious.

A gene drive (blue) always ends up in all offspring, even if only one parent has it. That means that, given enough generations, it will eventually spread through the entire population.

Progress on gene drives has been proceeding quickly, to the point where scientists working with them in

Aedes mosquitoes claim that they could have a system in place within a year. That’s faster than a vaccine for Zika could be developed.

Still, that doesn’t mean we’ll have gene-edited mosquitoes flying by that time. Anthony Regalado, reporting for Technology Review, has more:

Gene-drive technology could be ready sooner than a vaccine, but it’s no quick fix, either, scientists caution. Self-annihilating mosquitoes will first have to undergo tests in the lab, then perhaps on an island, before they could be released more broadly. Regulations and public debate could stretch the time line out for years.

Many scientists working on gene drives are in favor of a robust debate around using this technology. After all, it wouldn’t just eliminate an animal that’s a pest to humans, it would remove a species from its ecosystem. In the Americas, where Aedes species are invasive, that’s less of a concern—other native species would certainly pick up the slack. But in its native territory, what would happen in their absence is an unanswered question.

Should we eliminate disease-carrying mosquitoes? Anna Rothschild grapples with the question in this episode of Gross Science .

Settling that, and other ethical issues associated with gene drives, should be a priority, said Arthur Caplan, a bioethicist at New York University, in an intervivew with NOVA Next in July 2014. “The time to really get cracking on the legal/ethical infrastructure for this technology is right now,” he said.