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Texas A&M researchers experimenting with gene-deleting technology in mosquitoes

If successful, it could help other groups prevent mosquitoes and other animals from transmitting diseases
Published: Jan. 7, 2021 at 11:00 PM CST
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas (KBTX) - Researchers at Texas A&M are trying to find a way to eliminate mosquitoes’ ability to transmit diseases.

Department of Entomology Professor Zach Adelman and his team are developing a technology designed to only temporarily change the genetic makeup of mosquitoes. If it works, they can use this technology to reverse any unforeseen consequences of other tests on large mosquito populations, such as unintentionally extending their lifespan.

“In order to use some of these technologies, they require the ability to spread their genes into a population in an unchecked fashion,” Adelman said. “It’s supposed to spread and take over the mosquito population and turn the mosquitoes into something else, something that’s less harmful. But that’s a scary prospect because it’s never been done before. There’s a lot of unknowns and a lot of uncertainty about what might happen.”

That’s where Adelman and his team come in. The project they’re working on is designed to change mosquito populations back to what they are now if these other technologies cause an undesirable outcome.

”You really need to know how to stop before you test the car, right?” Adelman said. “If you make a really great engine and say let’s go test it out and see how fast it can go, but you haven’t bothered to design the break system yet, you might be surprised that it’s not going to end well. We’re trying to build the breaking system.”

Adelman says his goal for this project is to gain the ability to go into the environment and do an experiment that lasts a year or two, and then the changes introduced by that experiment will go away on its own. This will give researchers the opportunity to find out if they can live with the effects and learn about them in the real world to decide if they want to use them or not.

“The models predict that we can do something like this,” Adelman said. “We should be able to have something that will spread very fast briefly, but then will disappear on its own.”

Adelman says he is working on the reverse of what many teams around the world are doing, which is figuring out how to engineer the mosquito genome to change it in a way that’s beneficial to people.

“If everything works perfectly, you wouldn’t want to change it back,” Adelman said. “But what if something happens that you don’t expect? Do you have the ability to get it to go back on its own. That’s what we’re addressing with this work.”

If successful, Adelman says a variation of this technology could be used in larger animals known for spreading disease like bats, rats, and raccoons.

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