Genetic modification of mosquitoes to halt Zika virus an interesting idea, says entomologist

A University of Manitoba (U of M) entomology professor says eradicating the species of mosquitoes that carries the Zika virus could be good for humans.

Some scientists are raising concerns over genetically modifying the mosquitoes that carry the virus

The Aedes aegypti mosquito spreads the Zika virus, as well as dengue fever and chikungunya. (James Gathany/CDC/Associated Press)

University of Manitoba entomologist Kateryn Rochon says eradicating the species of mosquitoes that carries the Zika virus could be good for humans.

Researchers suspect the mosquito-borne virus is linked to rises in microcephaly, a condition in which babies are born with unusually small heads that can lead to developmental issues or even death. The Word Health Organization has called the Zika virus a public health emergency of international concern. 

Some scientists are calling for the eradication of Aedes aegypti, the mosquito species that transmits the Zika virus, yellow fever and dengue fever. The British biotechnology company Oxitec is working on genetically modifying mosquito eggs to kill offspring before they become adults.

Other scientists are worried that not enough is known about the effects of genetically modifying mosquitoes to control the population.

"It's really removing an invasive species like we try to do for other invasive species, either fish or plants or other insects," said Rochon, an assistant professor at the U of M. "This is an exciting idea for mosquito control."

People have been genetically modifying plants for years and although the long-term effects of genetically modifying insects are unknown, this approach could help, she said.

"It would benefit a large number of people, many of them in developing countries," she said. 

Scientists are also researching using a bacteria called Wolbachia to control the mosquito species that transmits the Zika virus. Wolbachia reduces the ability of insects to become infected with viruses, and mosquitoes that have the bacteria pass it on to future generations.

Both genetic modification and the bacteria approach should be used to control the mosquitoes transmitting the Zika virus, she said.

"The sensible way of attacking a problem and increasing our likelihood of control without generating resistance is to try all these different methods," she said.

Using bacteria and genetic modification to control mosquito populations are fairly recent approaches but they're good alternatives to pesticides, Rochon said.

"Many mosquito species are resistant to a number of pesticides we have in our toolbox," she said. "If we add genetic modification, we can reduce the amount of pesticides we use."

The mosquitoes transmitting the Zika virus would likely be killed off in a certain area, not worldwide, because it's expensive to kill mosquitoes in places where there are no humans, Rochon said.

"Even just reducing population and giving us control will make things better for a lot of people," she said. "The consequence of eradicating … Aedes aegypti, it's looking positive for humans."


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