Mosquitoes are some of the most deadly creatures on the planet. They carry viruses, bacteria and parasites, which they transmit through bites, infecting some 700 million people and killing more than 1 million each year.
With international travel, migration and climate change, these infections are no longer confined to tropical and subtropical developing countries. Pathogens such as West Nile virus and Zika virus have caused significant outbreaks in the United States and its territories that are likely to continue, with new invasive pathogens being discovered all the time. Currently, control of these diseases is mostly limited to broad-spectrum insecticide sprays, which can harm both humans and non-target animals and insects. What if there was a way to control these devastating diseases without the environmental problems of widespread insecticide use?
Genetically modifying mosquitoes to prevent disease may sound like science fiction, but the technology has advanced in recent years to the point where this is no longer a scenario relegated to late-night movies. In fact, it's not even a new idea; scientists were talking about modifying insect populations to control diseases as early as the 1940s. Today, genetically modified (GM) mosquitoes, developed during the past several decades of research in university laboratories, are being used to combat mosquito-borne pathogens – including viruses such as dengue and Zika – in many locations around the globe, including the United States. Progress is also being made to use GM mosquitoes to combat malaria, the most devastating mosquito-borne disease, although field releases for malaria control have not yet taken place.
More from The Conversation:
Why mosquitoes bite some people more than others
Modifying mosquitoes to stop transmission of dengue fever
Infecting mosquitoes with bacteria so they can't infect us with viruses like Zika and dengue
I have been working on GM mosquitoes, both as a lab tool and to combat disease, for over 20 years. During that time, I have personally witnessed the technology go from theoretical, to seeing it used in the field. I've seen older techniques that were inefficient, random and slow pave the way for new methods like CRISPR, which enables efficient, rapid and precise editing of mosquito genomes, and ReMOT Control which eliminates the requirement for injecting materials into mosquito embryos. These new technologies make GM mosquitoes for disease control not a question of "if," but rather a question of "where" and "when."
Don't worry, these genetic changes only affect the mosquitoes – they are not transmitted to people when the mosquito bites them.