Sept. 24 (UPI) -- For the first time, scientists have successfully used "gene drive" technology to block female reproduction and eliminate malaria-carrying mosquitoes in lab experiments.
The promise of gene drive has been previously demonstrated, but the latest feat -- detailed Monday in the journal Nature Biotechnology -- marked the first time the technology has completely suppressed a population.
Scientists at Imperial College London successfully collapsed the mosquito population in just seven generations.
"This breakthrough shows that gene drive can work, providing hope in the fight against a disease that has plagued mankind for centuries," ICL researcher Andrea Crisanti said in a news release. "There is still more work to be done, both in terms of testing the technology in larger lab-based studies and working with affected countries to assess the feasibility of such an intervention."
Several hundred thousand people die every year as a result of malaria infections. The majority of infections and deaths occur in sub-Saharan Africa.
Scientists tested gene drive technology on the most common malaria-carrying mosquito species, Anopheles gambiae. In the future, scientists hope to release gene driving females into the wild near malaria hotspots.
Researchers used gene drive technology to spread a "doublesex" gene mutation throughout the population. The doublesex gene determines whether a mosquito develops as a male or a female. Males and females carrying a single copy of the gene mutation remain unaffected, but females carrying two copies develop both male and female characteristics. The double mutation also caused the females to stop biting and laying eggs.
Because the gene mutation is inherited in offspring at a 100 percent success rate, the population breeds itself out of existence. By the eighth generation, the test population had no more females capable of laying eggs, causing the population to collapse.