The extent to which mosquitoes suck–and not just literally–cannot be overstated. Malaria spread by the bugs killed 438,000 people in 2015, and then there’s Zika and Dengue Fever to contend with. But altering of the genes with so-called “gene drive” tools can create malaria-proof mosquitoes, and could prevent the spread of other mosquito-borne diseases. But, of course, there’s a problem.
Gene drive tools have been advancing at a fast pace, and one lab in California has already hatched gene-edited mosquitoes that are not only resistant to malaria, but that pass the resistance on to their offspring. And this could functionally wipe out malaria in certain regions for good. Not only that but it would likely be more cost-effective than treating and preventing the disease in humans.
As these tools advance, there’s been much talk about unleashing gene drive mosquitoes to thwart the advance of Zika. Indeed, three U.S. labs–two in California and one in Virginia–are currently using CRISPR to create a gene drive that could force Aedes aegypti, the type of mosquito blamed for spreading Zika, into extinction. And this particular gene drive tool could be ready within a year.
The problem is that–whether we’re wiping out a disease, or an entire species of insect–these gene-edited mosquitoes could be completely devastating to the environment. Or not. We simply don’t know enough yet to unleash them into the wild, according to a new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.
As Elizabeth Heitman, a medical ethicist at Vanderbilt University who helped lead the committee explained:
The potential to reduce human suffering and ecological damage demands scientific attention. Gene drive is a fascinating area of science that has promise if we can study it appropriately.
Which is to say, let’s keep gene drive experiments in the lab until we know exactly what might happen if we code the Aedes aegypti, or any other animal/plant/etc to completely self-destruct. Sure we might wipe out some truly devastating diseases, but what else might be destroyed in the process as we tinker with nature?