Zika Virus: Gene-Altering Technology Provides Hope For Aedes Aegypti Eradication

Gene-altering could help curb Zika virus

The danger of mosquitoes has only recently been a widely-discussed topic with the Zika virus becoming a more prevalent threat in the United States. Scientists have a radical new idea that could eliminate the threat of the most common Zika-spreading mosquito, Aedes Aegypti, by totally eradicating the species.

Unlike many proposals that garner scorn from the scientific community, this particular idea to combat the Zika virus has gained support from several prominent individuals. One such person, entomologist Zach Adelman who is a virologist and associate professor of entomology at Texas A&M University, told the Wall Street Journal that eliminating this mosquito would be like “cleaning up a global mess.”

“I think it is our moral duty to eliminate this mosquito,” Adelman says.

And with these mosquitoes that spread the Zika virus reproducing like mad, there is only one solution to eradicate them, which is to turn them all into males.

mosquito research may help contain Zika virus
Eventually, the mosquitoes would run out of mates, which would be a man-made type of extinction which doesn’t usually gain approval in the scientific community. Gregory Kaebnick, a research scholar at the Hastings Center, a bioethics research institute in Garrison, N.Y., said that wiping a species off the face of the earth is “an unfortunate thing to have to do” and “we ought to try not to do it.” But Omar Akbari, a molecular biologist and assistant professor of entomology at the University of California, Riverside, says “Aedes aegypti is literally probably the most dangerous animal in the world.”

In the United States, Miami, Fla. is experiencing the most serious threat from the Zika virus due to the area’s ideal climate and moisture levels. Matthew DeGennaro studies mosquitoes at Florida International, and he described the insect’s talents for locating humans to WLRN.

“At a distance, a mosquito senses the carbon dioxide from you,” DeGenanaro said. “They fly closer to you, then they start smelling your body odor. And then, as they get a little closer to you, they sense the heat that’s coming off your body. Then they land on you.”

And the problem with these crafty mosquitoes is that they have adapted to thrive among humans and get their tasty blood meal by any means necessary. Another FIU researcher, Mario Perez, says Aedes aegypti targets the ankles because we’re less likely to notice them and swat the Zika virus carriers there.

As different pesticide tactics have been used to combat the insects, it turns out that even those chemicals may be making the mosquitoes stronger.

Miami Beach Sprays To Combat Zika Virus
“You’re going to have a small part of that population that survives the spraying for a variety of genetic and physiological reasons,” Perez says. “Those handful that survive, they’re the ones that go on to reproduce.”

Varying up the types of pesticides used can only go so far in keeping the Zika carriers on their toes.

“It’s highly unlikely you’ll get a population of mosquitoes resistant to all four, five, six insecticides that they’re using,” Perez added.

So if the mosquitoes with the Zika virus can adapt faster than the pest control folks can come up with new solutions, the odds are stacked against these common ways of eradication. And in Miami, the ideal breeding weather doesn’t help those looking to eliminate the threat.

“The optimum temperature for mosquitoes is 79 degrees,” Allan Cespedes, manager for Orkin Pest Control in Miami said. “That’s what we are year-round, pretty much.”

Common methods aren’t working to control the pests, so the idea of altering them genetically really is the only option left on the table to rein in the Zika virus threat. Entomologist and former executive director of the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District, Michael Doyle, explained that the impact of eliminating an insect so tiny from the food chain would be minimal.

“They’re so tiny a bat would have to eat thousands of them to equal a couple of moths,” Doyle said.

And that type of food chain impact should be of secondary concern when it comes to protecting the public from a disease-carrying mosquito that can carry the Zika virus as far north as New York.

Even with the added weapon of altering the mosquitoes genetically, Professor Adelman of Texas A&M offered some realism for the situation.

[This is] “an all-powerful tool that will win the war for us, but that is exactly the sentiment that people felt when things like DDT first came along… It’s good to be optimistic. But we need to be realistic as well.”

The threat of the Zika virus is real, and these breakthroughs could help contain or even eliminate the mosquitoes that are making the virus difficult to fight. While tampering with nature isn’t the ideal solution to any problem, it seems like the only option remaining to help eradicate the Zika mosquito.

[Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images]