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Genetic engineering & mosquito bites

As spring approaches, we can expect a new onslaught of pollen, bugs, and mud puddles. Mosquito eggs will hatch in stagnant water, and a new generation of hungry little disease vectors will be lurking in wooded areas, awaiting their first meal.

Luckily for those of us who live in North America, those annoying mosquito bites are unlikely to infect us with malaria.

A team of scientists committed to eradicating malaria (one of my personal favorite parasites) has taken a new approach to reducing transmission rates: creating a strain of malaria-immune mosquitoes.

I had been under the mistaken impression that mosquitoes lived in perfect harmony with malaria parasites, but apparently the organisms can make them quite ill as well. Not ill enough to die immediately (hence their ability to spread the disease) but ill enough to die prematurely.

So if we could create a malaria immune mosquito, we could give them a survival advantage over their peers, thus slowly influencing the mosquito population in favor of the new strain. This could result in a new population of mosquitoes who could not harbor malaria.

In humans, malaria parasites have learned how to attach themselves to red blood cell proteins and incubate inside the cells. In mosquitoes, the parasites latch on to a protein (called SM1) on the surface of epithelial cells of their gut lining. Through the miracle of genetic engineering, we’ve managed to alter the SM1 proteins in certain mosquitoes, making them immune to invasion by parasites they ingest through infected blood.

Although the immune mosquitoes are not ready for prime time release in malaria endemic countries (the research only showed that the scientists could genetically engineer resistance to one strain of malaria), it sure would be interesting to see if we could use mosquitoes themselves to fight a disease that claims the lives of over one million people per year.

This is a rare case of a problem becoming the solution!

This post originally appeared on Dr. Val’s blog at

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