It's no secret that mosquitoes are the cause of a lot of suffering in the world. Malaria, Dengue fever, chikungunya, and West Nile are just a few names infamously associated with those little bloodsuckers that we all hate. Now researchers are proposing a new way to control their numbers without eliminating the bugs entirely - by attacking egg production.
It's not exactly like the world doesn't have many means of controlling mosquito populations already. Pesticides have long been a last resort that third-world countries will still employ. Other, more modern and less environmentally harmful approaches have also started seeing use, including experimental DNA manipulation and designer bacterial infection. Many countries are even introducing sterile males into a population to help "dilute" the number of successful reproducers.
However, many of these options pose the threat of eliminating mosquitoes entirely, which could gravely impact certain delicate ecosystems. Even the safest solution - the dilution approach - requires the regular release of thousands of sterile males, meaning that an expensive lab - often called a "mosquito factory" - has to be set up in the hub of an affected region.
Now, researchers are claiming in a study recently published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) that they have identified an essential regulator in female mosquito egg production, opening up the best chance yet at limiting mosquito populations in a safe and inexpensive way.
This was accomplished after researchers from the University of California paid special attention to the mechanics of micro-RNAs (miRNA) in female mosquito ovary and egg development.
For simplicity, RNA is best described as a sort of "DNA middleman" - where DNA makes RNA, which makes proteins. These proteins are essential for processes in any living being's body, and the researchers were able to identify miRNA-8 as an essential regulator of mosquito reproductive events.
"To our knowledge, this is the first time a mosquito miRNA has been investigated in this specific manner," Alexander Raikhel, who helped lead the study, said in a statement. "In the lab, female transgenic mosquitoes with deficiency in miRNA-8 displayed severely compromised ovary development and reduced egg-laying."
And, as can be expected, reduced egg-lay ultimately leads to smaller populations. However, the researchers are quick to add that this is just the first stage in a long process of developing an ideal "birth control" for mosquitoes.
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