Photo via aussiegall via Flickr Creative Commons
Mosquitos are the bane of humans as they're a primary way diseases from malaria to dengue fever are spread. Malaysia has been fighting a frustrated battle with dengue fever, and might become the first Asian country to use genetically engineered insects, rather than pesticides or managed water ways, to fight against the spread of the disease. But could releasing mosquitoes with modified genes have even worse unintended consequences?Malaysia has started a pilot project for genetically engineering male mosquitoes -- when released from the lab, they will mate with females to produce offspring with shorter lifespans, reports Yahoo News. The hope is that the population of mosquitoes will be checked, and along with it cases of disease among humans. The disease the project is primarily focused on is dengue fever, because it has no vaccine or known cure.
Researchers seem to feel genetically modifying mosquitoes is the best course of action since getting Malaysians to clean up stagnant water hasn't worked. However, local environmentalists are worried that the project could have consequences beyond reducing disease -- after all, there are many species that feed off mosquitoes, and reducing the number of insects also means reducing food sources from birds to fish to other insects.
The project plans to release between 2,000 and 3,000 of the newly modified mosquitoes -- a fairly small number to start, but enough to see whether or not mosquito numbers begin to drop. According to Yahoo, it would be the first release of its kind in Asia.
While mosquitoes are a cause of the disease's spread, there are more holistic ways of managing it, including heightened efforts around the "failed" maintenance of stagnant water, more novel solutions like pesticide-soaked wall paper, and also strengthening access to medical care across Malaysia so that even if the number of cases of dengue don't drop, at least the numbers of deaths from the disease will. Neither of these are easy solutions, but they may be more practical than changing the genetic structure of insects.
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