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Genetically Engineered Mosquitoes to combat Zika Virus. Image Courtesy: Getty Images
  • Study shows that genes of an entire species can be modified
  • This discovery was used in making malaria in Brazil that are resistant to Zika Virus
  • Few scientists are worried bioterrorists will cause havoc if this technology reaches their hands

Valentino Gantz, a graduate student, was recently successful in changing the genetic modelling of brown fruit flies in such a way they their offspring all turned out to be blonde. This discovery proved to be a milestone in the way genetics is understood by scientists. The changes that are made in the genes have the possibility of being passed on to newer generations. Fruit flies were used in particular since their biological settings help biologists study pathogens that cause human diseases.

“I believe it’s going to transform the world of genetics,” Biologist Ethan Bier says, “because it’s going to allow researchers to bypass the rules of genetics in many different spheres of activity.” Ethan Bier runs a laboratory at the University of California, San Diego.


What Gantz demonstrated was a new technique that could make that happen almost every time. Scientists call it a “gene drive.”


A Brown Fruit Fly. Image Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Gene drive is a breakthrough discovery by a panel of influential scientists of National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. The report that the panel came up with greatly appreciated the efforts that were put in to obtain these results. This means that, if done right, most of the major viruses that claim human lives today can be eradicated. An example is the use of genetically influenced mosquitoes that were released in Brazil to combat the vicious Zika virus.

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However, there’s a long way to go before scientists can start using this information in today’s genetics. There is a very high possibility of mistakes at the molecular level, which will have exponential effects. Scientists cannot afford to disturb the delicate balance that exists in the ecosystems.

According to an independent report, “It’s possible that a particular altered trait could cause unexpected and possibly harmful side-effects on other organisms when spread through a particular species using a drive. The risks will primarily depend on the alteration and species rather than on the drive itself. This is why proposed gene drive must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis – it’s all about the trait, species and ecosystem in question.”


Academics of Sciences, Engineering and Medicines. Image Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Scientists who work in the field of genetics have been able to make changes in the gene for decades, but what is exciting about this new discovery is that now, a change in an organism can be quickly passed on to the next generation, and eventually an entire species. This is achieved by creating a change in the sequence of the DNA molecule itself.

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Scientists are looking for ways to use this advance to curb diseases like malaria by destroying the problem at its stem itself. Mosquitoes are being genetically modified so that they can no longer carry the parasite.

Anthony James of the University of California, Irvine, one of the scientists who created the mosquitoes that can block malaria, lauded the report for providing a calculated framework while performing the research. “I think it’s actually fair and balanced and well done,” James says. “I think they did a really good job.”

However, there are experts who fear if this technology is placed in the wrong hands, it can be used by bioterrorists to create large scale havoc. Not only will it destroy ecosystems, but also allow evolution of new diseases and spread the reach of existing diseases to new areas.

-by Saurabh Bodas, an intern at NewsGram. Twitter: @saurabhbodas96

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