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Scientists Release Controversial Genetically Modified Mosquitoes In High-Security Lab

Sunday February 24, 2019. 06:17 PM , from Slashdot
An anonymous reader quotes a report from NPR: Scientists have launched a major new phase in the testing of a controversial genetically modified organism: a mosquito designed to quickly spread a genetic mutation lethal to its own species, NPR has learned. For the first time, researchers have begun large-scale releases of the engineered insects, into a high-security laboratory in Terni, Italy. The goal is to see if the mosquitoes could eventually provide a powerful new weapon to help eradicate malaria in Africa, where most cases occur. The lab was specially built to evaluate the modified insects in as close to a natural environment as possible without the risk of releasing them into the wild, about which there are deep concerns regarding unforeseen effects on the environment.

To prevent any unforeseen effects on the environment, scientists have always tried to keep genetically engineered organisms from spreading their mutations. But in this case, researchers want the modification to spread. So they engineered mosquitoes with a 'gene drive.' A gene drive is like a 'selfish gene,' says entomologist Ruth Mueller, because it doesn't follow the normal rules of genetics. Normally, traits are passed to only half of all offspring. With the gene drive, nearly all the progeny inherit the modification. Researchers created the mosquitoes by using the powerful new gene-editing technique known as CRISPR, which Mueller likens to a 'molecular scissor which can cut at a specific site in the DNA.' The cut altered a gene known as 'doublesex,' which is involved in the sexual development of the mosquitoes. While genetically female, the transformed insects have mouths that resemble male mosquito mouths. That means they can't bite and so can't spread the malaria parasite. In addition, the insects' reproductive organs are deformed, which means they can't lay eggs. As more and more female mosquitoes inherit two copies of the modification, more and more become sterile. Critics fear that these gene-drive mosquitoes could run amok and wreak havoc in the wild. Not only could the insects cause a negative effect on crops by eliminating important pollinators, but the insects' population crash could also lead to other mosquitos coming with other diseases.

Mueller assures NPR's Rob Stein that the lab the mosquitos are in is very secure, adding that even if the mosquitos did escape they would not be able to survive Italy's climate. 'To enter the most secure part of the facility, Mueller punches a security code into a keypad to open a sliding glass door,' reports NPR. 'As the door seals, a powerful blower makes sure none of the genetically modified mosquitoes inside escape. Anyone entering must don white lab coats to make it easier to spot any mosquitoes that might try to hitch a ride out of the lab and must pass through a second sealed door and blower.'

Read more of this story at Slashdot.
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