The world’s most dangerous animal isn’t the lion, tiger or bear. It’s actually the mosquito.
“Mosquitos have killed more humans than any other creature in human history,” says Haydn Parry in today’s talk. “The mosquito has killed more humans than wars and plague.”
Every year, about a million and a half people succumb to malaria — even with technologies to prevent and treat the disease — while 50 to 100 million people a year are infected with dengue fever, a disease sometimes called “breakbone fever” that has grown 30 fold in the last half century. Spread by a species of mosquito from northern Africa — Aedes aegypti — the disease has sky rocketed because this mosquito and its eggs are so good at hitch hiking as human beings travel the world.
Traditionally, there have been two ways to control mosquitos in addition to nets and wearing covering clothing — larvicides, which kill mosquito eggs, and a variety of products designed to kill mosquitos as they fly. Both options are, however, difficult to deploy and can damage the environment, not to mention harm humans. Meanwhile, a single female mosquito can lay 500 eggs in her lifetime.
Parry’s company, Oxitec, has an idea to stop the rapid spread of dengue fever: genetically engineering male mosquitos to make their offspring unviable.
“There are two features of mosquito biology that really help us. Firstly, males don’t bite,” explains Parry. “And second — males are very, very good at finding females. If there’s a male mosquito that you release and there is a female around, the male will find the female … If that male is carrying a gene that causes the death of the offspring, then the offspring don’t survive. Instead of having 500 mosquitos running around, you have none.”
Parry shares that small initial field trials of this method show that, in as short as four months, a mosquito population can be depleted by as much as 85%. If further research goes well, these altered mosquitos can be shipped, cheaply, around the world.
To hear more about this promising approach, watch Parry’s talk above. And after the jump, see four more talks on mosquito madness.