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Genetic engineering tech promises to sterilize disease-spreading mosquitoes

A new gene-editing technique could help eliminate disease-spreading mosquito populations. File Photo by mycteria-shutterstock
A new gene-editing technique could help eliminate disease-spreading mosquito populations. File Photo by mycteria-shutterstock

Sept. 10 (UPI) -- Inspired by improvements in CRISPR-based genetic engineering, scientists have developed a more precise insect sterilization system to curtail, or even eliminate, disease-spreading Aedes aegypti mosquito populations.

The so-called "precision-guided sterile insect technique," or pgSIT, relies on gene alterations that disrupt fertility in males and flight in females. Gene-altered males are released into a problematic population to compete with healthy males.

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Scientists described the novel method in a new paper, published Friday in the journal Nature Communications.

"pgSIT is a new scalable genetic control system that uses a CRISPR-based approach to engineer deployable mosquitoes that can suppress populations," corresponding author Omar Akbari said in a press release.

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"Males don't transmit diseases so the idea is that as you release more and more sterile males, you can suppress the population without relying on harmful chemicals and insecticides," said Akbari, a professor of biological sciences at the University of California, San Diego.

Unlike "gene drive" methods, which allow gene alterations to spread indiscriminately across a population, pgSIT is precise and self-limiting.

Researchers suggest the gene-altered eggs, which yield sterile males and flightless females, could be quickly deployed in places experiencing dengue fever, chikungunya and Zika outbreaks.

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Researchers used both mathematical models and lab experiments to show gene-altered eggs, when released in sufficient quantities, can -- according to the authors -- "compete, and suppress and even eliminate mosquito populations."

"This platform technology could be used in the field, and adapted to many vectors, for controlling wild populations to curtail disease in a safe, confinable and reversible manner," scientists wrote in their paper.

The gene-altered eggs could be produced and then shipped to problem locations, or they could produced on-site.

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Scientists estimate successful mitigation would require the deployment of between 100 and 200 pgSIT eggs per Aedes aegypti adult. Once the sterile males emerge, they mate with wild females and drive down populations numbers.

Though tested using Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, scientists suggest their system could be adapted for a variety of mosquito species and other pests.

"This study suggests pgSIT may be an efficient technology for mosquito population control and the first example of one suited for real-world release," researchers wrote.

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"Going forward, pgSIT may provide an efficient, safe, scalable and environmentally friendly alternative next-generation technology for wild population control of mosquitoes resulting in wide-scale prevention of human disease transmission," they wrote.

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