A recent article published in the Los Angeles Times claims that genetic research being conducted with mosquitoes could be leading to a breakthrough we have all been waiting for. A team of researchers led by Dr. Matt DeGennaro at Florida International University are currently analyzing the genes in mosquitoes that help them find and bite them. Mosquitoes have the potential to carry many different harmful diseases, such as Zika Virus, Malaria, and Yellow Fever. The ability to isolate the genes responsible for their ability to hunt down and potentially infect humans would be a step in the direction of preventing these deadly diseases from being spread. Through his work with a species of mosquito known as Aedes aegypti, Dr. DeGennaro has determined that mosquitoes rely on a wide variety of cues to locate humans. They are known to have the ability to detect both carbon dioxide and lactic acid in the air to locate humans, and can even taste a human with their legs by landing on their skin. These uncanny abilities are possible because of certain genes the mosquito possesses. DeGennaro has done extensive research on the role the IR8a scent receptor in Aedes aegypti that detects carbon dioxide and lactic acid, and has found a way to disrupt the gene that codes for this key receptor. DeGennaro's research shows that mosquitoes without this receptor did have a significantly lower response to human chemical signatures. Overall, a much lower percentage of mosquitoes without the IR8a gene were able to detect human blood and odor than normal mosquitoes with the IR8a gene. This discovery is likely the first step in devising a strategy to deactivate this gene in mosquitoes and stop the spreading of deadly diseases such as Yellow Fever.
I think that this article and the research being conducted by Dr. DeGennaro and his team is very promising. The ability to isolate one of the genes that help mosquitoes track and bite humans is a very useful discovery. In the not-so-distant future, I would expect this information to lead to a new type of insecticide that specifically targets the IR8a gene in mosquitoes. This may seem very unlikely right now, but science progresses very quickly, and it would not surprise me if this type of insecticide was possible in the next few decades. However, the disruption of the mosquitoes' IR8a gene would do more than stop them from biting humans. The inability to detect carbon dioxide would likely impair their ability to locate any potential prey. This would cause the death of many mosquitoes and cause the entire ecosystem to be thrown out of balance. Before this is done, ecologists must determine what kinds of effects a dwindling mosquito population would have on the environment and weigh the risks and rewards associated with this scientific breakthrough.