Scientists engineer mutant mosquitoes to fight the Zika virus

Zika is linked to a dangerous birth defect

Aedes aegypti mosquito
FILE - This 2006 file photo provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows a female Aedes aegypti mosquito in the process of acquiring a blood meal from a human host. The The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2016, announced new guidance for doctors whose pregnant patients may have traveled to regions with a tropical illness linked to birth defects. Officials say doctors should ask pregnant women about their travel and certain symptoms, and, if warranted, test them for an infection with the Zika virus. The virus is spread through mosquito bites. (James Gathany/Centers for Disease Control and Prevention via AP, File)

(CNN) – They look like glowing globules, these larvae represent ground zero in the fight against mosquito borne disease.

The virus known as Zika continues to spread throughout South America and beyond. Linked to thousands of babies being born with shrunken brains. Authorities don’t exactly know what to do about it.  There’s no vaccine and fumigation is limited.

A company here in England says the key to solving the problem is more mosquitoes like these.  Here at the Oxitech labs, they’ve been genetically modified to produce offspring that die before growing into mature adults.  Only male mosquitoes are introduced into the wild.

“I just want to show you the males because we only release the males as they don’t bite. The female mosquitoes which bite and transmit the disease. Ok, so as you can see since it’s only the males I can put my hand in without worrying I’m going to get bitten,” said Andy McKemey.

It’s essentially death by sex. Once the genetically modified male mates with the female, he passes on the deadly gene. That gene spreads to the larvae.

The larvae are then unable to grow into adults, for tracking purposes, they also glow in the dark, “Here we can see six of the mosquitos under normal light. But if I turn down the white light, you can see the ones at the top, there’s a glow around the eye. That glow is due to a genetic marker,” McKemey continued.  “What we can do is look at the proportion of mosquitos we get back from the field and see what proportion have the gene, which means they aren’t going to develop into adults. As opposed to the wild. And based on that ratio, we can adjust the release of our males”.

So far, that tracking shows promising results.  One study done in the Brazilian city of El Dorado showed an 82% reduction in mosquito larvae, compared to a non-treated area 1.5 km away.

Scientists warn the spread of Zika could spiral into a global pandemic.  Who would have thought the key to stopping it could be a glowing mutant mosquito.

Copyright CNN 2016

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