Genetically Modified Insects for Disease Control

by Danielle Meyer, Electrical and Computer Engineering and German double major

For those of use living in the United States, dangerous diseases including malaria and dengue fever might not seem all that important.  For those living in areas of South America, Africa, India, and elsewhere, these diseases are threats to everyday life and they are carried by things that they interact with every day: insects.

Malaria and Dengue Fever are carried by mosquitoes and these diseases cause over 500,000 deaths (malaria) and 20,000 (dengue)  a year.  Not only are these diseases deadly and debilitating, they also cost governments and agencies around the world millions of dollars to combat.

After decades of control efforts by the World Health Organization and other researchers, many have come to believe that these diseases might be too complex to control.  Others have been working to develop a way to genetically modify these disease carriers so that they can control the disease spread.

Genetically Modified Mosquitoes have been tested by the company, Oxitec, in various countries around the world.They report that their technique, which includes inserting a gene into male mosquitoes that causes them to require tetracycline, a compound not available in nature to live, caused an 85% reduction in mosquito populations in 4 months.

Many speak out against this technology with understandable concerns, including the potential consequences of modifying nature.  This becomes less of an issue with other technologies, which do not lead to mosquito death, but instead cause females to become resistant to these pathogens. Others are concerned with how the virus or pathogen will adapt due to less opportunity to infect hosts.

Regardless of criticisms, it seems apparent that we should do all we can to control these diseases, while also ensuring that the consequences of our actions have been thoroughly explored.

This blog post was an assignment for Societal Issues: Pesticides, Alternatives and the Environment (PLNTPTH 4597). The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the class, Department of Plant Pathology or the instructor.

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