John Tierney at the NY Times has a blog on a topic I wanted to introduce but I figured people might want to just check out his blog here.
In case people did not see it, scientists at Johns Hopkins just announced they had created a mosquito strain that is resistant to infection by Plasmodium and thus does not transit malaria (it is a mouse model so they do not have this for humans at this point). The key to their study is that their mosquito is healthy, whereas previous attempts to create mosquitoes that are resistant to malaria infection have been sick. Thus, the hope is that with healthy mosquitoes, they can be introduced into a population and the resistance gene will spread rather than be wiped out by negative selection.
I really love this research area because it truly is an applied use of evolutionary biology and population genetics. If you want some gene (natural or unnatural) to spread through the mosquitoes of the world, you have to understand evolution in general and for mosquitoes in particular. Plus, there are many possible ways to do this — and it is interesting to see the research in different ways. For example, there are some projects to try to introduce particular Wolbachia strains into mosquito populations. Wolbachia would serve as a sort of birth control for mosquitoes.
The most problemmatic part of the current study unfortunately is not the science per se. It relates to the fact that the way they made the mosquitoes resistant was through genetic engineering, not breeding. And such a GMO mosquito carries all the same fears and issues as GMO foods. The key question is – suppose they can create a version of mosquito that will do the same thing for human malaria – should such GMO mosquitoes be released? And if they are released, will Europe and Asia all of a sudden create an uproar? And if you were offered to bowls of soup, one that a non GMO mosquito was in and one that the GMO was in, which would you eat?