Ending malaria: How genetically modified mosquitoes could unlock Africa's wealth

Ending malaria could lift African nations out of poverty by spurring education, market productivity, and economic growth.

Jim Young/Reuters/File
A worker dissects a mosquito at the Sanaria Inc. facility in Rockville, Md. The insects are dissected to find malaria parasites, with hopes that they will lead to a vaccine against malaria. Genetically altering mosquitoes to not carry the disease is another approach being researched.

Bloodthirsty? Yes! Pesky? Absolutely! Malaria transmitters? Possibly not anymore.

Mosquitoes are getting a genetic makeover, which could potentially halt the endemic spread of malaria, according to a group of Johns Hopkins University researchers.

Mosquitoes have been nibbling away at birds, reptiles, and humans for nearly 30 million years. They hold primary responsibility for  infecting approximately 300 million people with malaria and causing 1 million deaths a year in more than 100 countries.

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Scientists have been able to activate a gene that blocks these tiny insects from developing the malaria parasite in their guts. While this discovery seemed promising initially, researchers struggled to design a mosquito that could out-survive their malaria-infected counterparts.

The answer, they discovered, lies in controlling a protein called SM1 peptide. When this protein was activated, studies found that “after nine egg-laying cycles, the mix of genetically-modified (GM) mosquitoes and wild had changed to 70/30,” according to How Stuff Works?.

In spite of the promising findings, scientists remain leery of releasing the GM mosquitoes into the wild. These tests have only been done on malaria-carrying mice; the long-term effects on humans are still unknown. Releasing tens of thousands of mosquitoes into the wild has never been done before, and there is a possibility that the GM mosquitoes could eventually develop immunity to the malaria parasite.

Perhaps the most compelling argument against releasing these mosquitoes comes at the heels of recent findings of an anti-malaria vaccine, largely funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. When 6,000 African children were tested with the vaccine, “it reduced the risk of infection with severe malaria by 47 percent during the year after the shots,” reports the New York Times.

As President Obama stated earlier this year,  “Africa’s future is up to Africans.” Finding an end to malaria has the potential to lift African nations out of poverty by spurring educational advancement, market productivity, and economic growth.

And ending malaria would certainly hold great promise for Africa’s future by cultivating healthy young minds of students who can sustain their educational development. In fact, studies done in Kenya by the World Health Organization found that the “disease kept children out of school for 11 percent [of the school year]."

While the long-term impacts of GM mosquitoes and vaccines currently elude us, dispersing these scientific discoveries could save the lives of millions of impoverished people. The end to the means has yet to be uncovered, but these findings could pave the road to a usable solution. And that is something to buzz about.

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