Scientists from the University of Arizona have genetically modified mosquito larvae so that malaria cannot affect it in the same way it would normal unmodified mosquitoes. The breakthrough promises to be one of the most incredible combatants against a disease that has devastated millions of lives. The Malaria virus is currently the primary cause of death for over 102 million people. But others are not so sure this modification is feasible or ethical. The debate will certainly be a controversial issue in coming years.
Essentially the way the genetic modification works is the insect is modified so that its stomach does not develop to the size where the malaria bug can infect it. The malaria resistant mosquitoes will then theoretically populate and pass the gene down to future generations and eventually the entire threat of malaria is expected to be wiped out over the course of several generations. Given the high turnover rate of mosquitoes the trait would pass more quickly than a trait in a slower reproducing organism with a longer life span, such as humans.
But the modification is still in its trial phase. And there are other options that will be considered before the option of transforming the genetic line of all mosquitoes into something genetically significantly different. The modification will have several estimated negative drawbacks for the affected mosquitoes as well, including a shorter lifespan. But with the way evolution works, is it possible the malaria virus will also be forced to evolve in order to survive in the new environment? Or will the modification provide enough of a rapid change to render the virus no longer a world changing disease that millions will have to contend with?
Of course there will be very few who find themselves sympathetic to the shorter lifespan of mosquitoes, but there is a very complex system of checks and balances in any given ecosystem. If a single balancing factor is drastically changed, this can have far reaching effects higher up in the food chain. This could be either for good or bad, but it is something largely incalculable even today. Of course when millions are dying of a deadly disease some consider it important to not simply dismiss something as potentially life saving as genetic modification. Still others consider the ecosystem something that cannot be disrupted at any cost.
And this debate is only brewing at the moment on the horizon. In time it will be necessary to consider the far reaching possibilities, but meanwhile it will only serve as food for thought on a topic that many millions consider a top priority. It’s by no means a simple matter, but those with strong opinions will no doubt (as is the case with several issues) attempt to oversimplify it or give end of the world scenarios both ways.
The final word on genetic modification is that there is a natural form of genetic modification that goes on all the time known most commonly as evolution. It is this form of modification that many say will be disrupted if humans try their own hand at selection. But even with this modification, will survival of the fittest render the mosquitoes modified once again altered by nature? The shorter lifespan could mean quicker reproduction for mosquitoes developing in time or give the unaffected mosquitoes an evolutionary advantage over them. It is the estimate of several scientists that the modified mosquitoes will have difficulty competing in the natural world which plays only by its own rules.