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Biotechnologists have engineered the mosquito that spreads the Zika virus to pass a lethal gene to its offspring. Another team of researchers has devised a way to spread sterility through the mosquito population, using a technique called gene drive to wipe out the offending insects.
This kind of genetic meddling makes many environmentalists deeply uncomfortable. Manipulating nature’s DNA seems a hugely risky and ethically fraught way to help save the natural world. And yet, we may need to accept the risks.
On Hawaiian islands, for instance, avian malaria transmitted by mosquitoes is decimating native bird populations. Warmer temperatures have exacerbated the threat, allowing mosquitoes that carry the malaria parasite to invade higher-elevation areas that are the last holdouts for some birds. These losses ripple down through food chains, disrupting ecosystems.
But what if we could wipe out avian malaria without spraying toxic pesticides, by releasing male mosquitoes that have been genetically engineered to be sterile? Or that can’t transmit the malaria parasite, thanks to an altered gene in their salivary glands?
And if we can design sterile mosquitoes, what about sterile rats?
On islands around the globe, invasive rodents are obliterating native plants and animals — many of which exist nowhere else. By some estimates, 90 percent of these archipelagos are plagued by nonnative rodents. Eradicating them could restore ecosystems and let evolutionary processes resume unfettered. The current method, poison, is a costly, labor-intensive one that also risks harm to native animals.
Read full, original post: Tweaking Genes to Save Species