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Monday, October 4, 2010

Genetically Modified Mosquitoes

I have been prompted to sit at my computer after pondering over an article shared by a micro-biologist friend last week. It is about research being done by scientists who are trying to create a genetically modified mosquito that cannot transmit disease. Instead, the mosquito transmits (through reproduction) a gene that ensures the offspring mosquito dies. I have tried my best to gather the facts, but i stand to be corrected by those with greater scientific knowledge. You can read the original article here .

Malaria is a known killer that is transmitted to people by infected mosquitoes. In Zambia, we have just under four million malaria cases every year and about 15,000 deaths. The WHO estimates that malaria can decrease GDP by up to 1.3% and malaria accounts for up to 40% of public health expenditure. These are grim and real statistics and with high drug resistance and ever more deaths from a preventable disease, it is understandable that someone out there is looking for a lasting solution by attacking the medium that spreads the disease. The mosquito itself.

Now, NGOs and environment activists have long been fighting the continued advance of Monsanto - the baddest of bad guys in the genetics industry and this is just the kind of news that enrages them and puts a holy fear in me. I chose my words carefully. Maybe it's because I am a social scientist, am fairly religious and believe in conspiracy theories, but I just don't think this is a good idea at all. No matter what scientific breakthroughs are made, I do not believe we know enough about life to mess with certain things.

I am not a purist and I know that the vegetables I buy in Shoprite are genetically modified which is why they keep for a month, whereas the ones from Melisa shrivel and die in three days. I buy from both stores. So, I cannot claim to be ignorant of the fact the genetically modified organisms and products exist in my daily life.

I don't like to think of myself as irrational, but the thought of a genetically modified killer insect, albeit one engineered to no longer kill is one of those issues where I don't even want to think about the number of things that can go wrong with a plan like this. You release a swarm of genetically modified insects from the lab into the untested real world. A developing country (granted, the test site of Malaysia is a middle income country), with huge populations, poor health systems, limited facilities, lack of drugs and understaffed health centres and I think you have a potential recipe for disaster.

It could all go well, that is true, but movies like the eighties classic, The Fly come to mind. Many people don't realise that an oft quoted line, actually comes from this movie - Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid! Interestingly, Jeff Goldblum went on to star in Jurassic Park, another movie about scientists playing with nature and altering genetic makeup of species in order to create something else. In this instance, the dinosaurs bred when they weren't supposed to. Goldblum's character, Ian Malcolm when questioning the wisdom of the original plan comments that "life, uh... finds a way". And later, he also says "...your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn't stop to think if they should".

In a well meaning move, we are taking an insect and removing it's ability to transmit a killer disease in the hope that this insect will eventually come to dominate and though the mosquito will continue to exist, the ones that transmit malaria will die before they can. It does sound like a really good plan. But, I just can' get over the 'what if it isn't' part?


  1. Well written Masuka!

    The scientist who are doing this work have at the back of their minds the good of mankind (Eradicating malaria) but like you are saying, "what if it isn't?"
    As a scientist, it is interesting to follow these advances in science and how things are unfolding but there's still some fear within.

    An African, Mali, has actually agree to rear these GM mosquitoes for research.

  2. fear not ... unless of course we get mosquitoes the size of king kong. ;-)

  3. @Mtawa - I am intrigued to hear that Mali has signed up to be a testing ground. My cynical mind tells me their government can get away with such because civil society is not as actively engaged in governance as in other west African countries. Nevertheless, if my fear is to be well informed, I am interested in learning more about the methodology and how the transgenic thing actually works.

    @Simunza - the King Kong thing is exactly what I am afraid of. Our over-stretched health workers, under equipped health facilities and poorly administered health system in general can hardly cope with our current disease burden, let alone a killer breed of insect more deadly than anything we have ever seen. I am slightly comfortable with this being tested in far away Malaysia and Mali.

  4. Many, including the author, seem to be more influenced by movies such as The Fly and Jurassic Park than knowledge of the mosquitoes to be tested. As long as people who would influence opinion base them on fantasy, advances that *might* result from the use of GM mosquitoes will remain as these movies - fantasy. Time to dig into the science, not science fiction.

    The mosquitoes that are planned for testing are extremely safe. Give them a chance to prove their merit and for the potential hazards to be determined - in fact - in limited well-controlled trials.

  5. @SkeeterBoy - You have 'spoken' correctly. Unfortunately, none of the reports that I came across were written for non-scientists. It's either value laden anti-GMO activists or technical jargon. As I said before, I would love to read up some more on how this will really work. For now, science fiction is what I understand