23 January 2008

How to: bioengineer mosquitoes to stop spread of disease

Via Wired, I learned about Oxitec, a UK company making improvements on the 'sterile insect technique' currently used for some types of for pest management. In standard SIT, radiation-sterilized male mosquitoes are released into the wild, where they'll mate with wild-type females but cause the females' eggs to be non-viable. This has worked okay, but is not that scalable because the radiation step is tricky and tends to deplete your stock of male mosquitoes. In Oxitec's technique, the males are genetically altered to be dependent on tetracycline, which they are fed until release into the wild. Their offspring will also be tetracycline-dependent, and so will die before reaching reproductive maturity. Ultimately, this is all in the service of eradicating mosquito-borne diseases like Dengue fever, malaria, and so on.

Like many experiments in genetic engineering, this has the potential to be a pretty environmentally-friendly way to do the job (compared to, say, massive use of pesticides) but like most people I have a hard time shaking the feeling that somehow, it could all go terribly wrong. I'm inclined to call this vague sense of impending bio-engineered doom "Jurassic Park Syndrome."


Adam said...

Or...Ft. Collins-based InViragen is developing a vaccine against Dengue Fever. Colorado bio rules! great blog !