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Tuesday
Aug092011

Genetically-Engineered Spermless Mosquitoes Offer Malaria Hope

Stockbyte/Thinkstock(LONDON) -- Where mosquito netting and bug spray fail, European scientists are turning to a unique solution to stem the tide of malaria infection worldwide: they're breeding boy bugs that shoot blanks.

In a study released Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers in Italy and the U.K. showed they were able to genetically modify male Anopheles mosquitoes so that they wouldn't produce sperm. The bugs would still produce seminal fluid, so mating rituals would go on per usual, but the fruit of coupling would be sterile eggs that don't hatch.

"If mosquitoes [don't] produce any progeny...the number of mosquitoes in the wild will be reduced, eventually reducing the chances of malaria transmission," says study co-author Dr. Flaminia Catteruccia of the Imperial College in London.

Though there are thousands of mosquito species, only a handful of them can transmit malaria, Catteruccia says, so targeting these species has the potential to reduce the spread of disease and is less likely to negatively impact the local ecosystem.

The fact that the Anopheles species of mosquito tends to be monogamous only enhances the effect, as those females who mate with sterile males tended to not seek out other, potentially virile mates.

Sterility may even prove a reproductive boon for spermless males, authors note, because making sperm is energy-consuming, thus the modified males may appear to be stronger mates.

More than 225 million people worldwide suffer from malaria. Each year, nearly 800,000 people will die from the disease -- many of whom are children living in Africa.

"Given the constant spread of the disease, alternative approaches to the use of insecticides are urgently needed," the study's authors wrote.

Monday's research is just the most recent example of a number of mosquito-modifying techniques tested in the past few years in hopes of limiting the mosquito population or the bugs' disease-transmission capabilities.

Other mosquito-limiting tactics have included modifying males to be unable to fly (and who have offspring who also cannot fly) and injecting mosquitos with a special fungus that is thought to reduce the bug's ability to pass malaria to humans, even when the bugs themselves become infected.

The hope with these various methods is that disease rates can be lowered without negatively impacting the surrounding ecosystems, which often include several species of insects and animals that rely on mosquitoes for food.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio

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