Scientists from Virginia Tech report that using genetic engineering to change female mosquito embryos into males might be an effective way to combat the increasing incidence of diseases like Zika, chikungunya, and dengue. The team describes its gene drive approach in Trends in Parasitology.
Specifically, the researchers discuss how recent breakthroughs in CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing technology coupled with their discovery last year of a male sex-determining gene, Nix, could be a winning combination for tipping the male-female mosquito ratio in the wild. Male mosquitoes are harmless because they feed only on nectar; female mosquitoes need to feed on blood in order to produce eggs, and are solely responsible for disease transmission. In the lab, Virginia Tech researchers have proven that adding Nix in female mosquito embryos could initiate male development.
“We are testing the hypothesis that insertion of key male determining genes such as Nix into the genome of female mosquitoes could produce fertile or sterile males or simply female lethality, all of which will result in less females,” said Zhijian Tu, Ph.D., a professor of biochemistry in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, co-author of the study, and a Fralin Life Science Institute affiliate.
“Combining Nix with CRISPR-Cas9 technology could really help us complete goals set and not reached by previous campaigns to eradicate Aedes aegypti mosquitoes by driving maleness into wild populations,” added Zach Adelman, Ph.D., an associate professor of entomology in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and co-author of the paper.