As Zika virus is expected to spread across nearly all of the Americas, researchers plan to use genetically engineered mosquitoes to stop it in its tracks.
Transmitted through the sting of an infected mosquito, Zika virus is linked to a rare birth defect known as microencephaly - a condition in which infants are born with abnormally small heads and brains. Currently, there is not a vaccine to help stop the disease from spreading, and what's worse is the World Health Organization estimates that as many as 4 million people could be infected with the virus in the Americas before a vaccine is created.
That's why biologists from the biotech firm Oxitec, based in the United Kingdom, have an alternative plan. Essentially, they want to unleash swarms of genetically engineered mosquitoes into Brazilian jungles to prevent virus-carrying bugs from multiplying.
Researchers explained the mosquitoes, specifically a strain called Aedes aegypti, have been genetically modified to pass on a lethal gene to their offspring after mating with wild individuals. This gene basically causes young mosquitoes to die before they reach reproductive age -- thus reducing populations of virus-carrying bugs and, eventually, the spread of the Zika virus.
"As a vector that transmits a number of serious diseases, the Aedes aegypti mosquito poses a major threat to public health and the economic welfare of nations," Dr. Samuel Broder, Senior Vice President and Head of Intrexon's Health Sector, said in a news release. "Brazil has been hard hit by dengue and the situation there has been aggravated by the recent introduction of Zika virus infections leading to a startling increase in the number of children being born with microcephaly.
"Through the responsible engineering of biology, we demonstrate a new paradigm of species-specific vector control resulting in dramatic reductions of dangerous mosquitoes, without persistence or harm to the ecosystem, representing a major scientific, environmental and clinical advance," he added.
As it turns out, the Aedes aegypti mosquito carries a number of other tropical diseases, including dengue fever. Remarkably, however, researchers were able to reduce virus-carrying mosquito populations by 90 percent or more during trials in Latin America and Asia, Oxitec reported. This suggests genetically modified mosquitoes may be the best line of defense against these serious diseases for which there is no cure.
Currently, the biotech firm plans to expand its existing operations in Brazil, which will allow the company to release millions of genetically modified mosquitoes in the future.
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