GMO Mosquitos Released In High-Security Lab | Science | NPR

These are genetically modified
mosquitoes, but they are not like any genetically engineered organism ever
created before. They are designed to spread their genetic mutation in the
wild and hopefully someday eradicate the mosquitoes that transmit malaria, one of
the deadliest diseases on the planet. Scientists are experimenting with these
mosquitoes in a lab that is designed to make sure none of the insects escape. The lab is in Italy because even if they do escape these mosquitoes couldn’t survive
in this climate. Ruth Mueller runs the lab. She agreed to give me exclusive
access to the lab on the very day she launched this controversial experiment. She showed me the mosquitoes in various stages of their development. And yeah… All of these microscopic structures… I mean you can find there is beauty in every of the organisms on earth. So you see the eyes: right and left. Under the microscope, the modified insect’s eyes glow yellow when
they are lit up with a laser. The mosquitoes were created using the
powerful new gene-editing technique known as CRISPR to carry a sequence of
DNA called a gene drive. The gene drive empowers the mosquitoes to spread their
mutation incredibly fast through their entire species. The mutation turns all
the female mosquitoes into mutants: half female, half male. Their mouths are male
so they can’t bite and spread the malaria parasite. Their reproductive organs are deformed so they can’t lay eggs. So it’s not that we are against
mosquitoes and you don’t want to eradicate them. We want to control them,
and this is quite a big difference. She takes me into the most secure part of
the lab. This special chamber is where scientists
are for the first time releasing large numbers of these CRISPR gene drive
mosquitoes into cages filled with hundreds of natural mosquitoes of the same
species. Yes it’s a big moment so it’s the first gene drive release into a
near natural population. Two things will happen. So first of all, we make the gene drive release. So we put a specific number of
gene drive mosquitoes in two of the six cages. Everything in the chamber of large cages
is carefully controlled to mimic the mosquitoes’ habitat in sub-saharan Africa. It’s hot and humid. So Tanya our chief technician, she is now putting a vessel with all of this gene drive pupa into the large cage. The hope is that if
these mosquitoes are someday released in Africa they would mate with the main
species of mosquito that spreads malaria, quickly transmit their modification
through local populations and help wipe out malaria. But these
mosquitoes are really controversial. Critics fear they could wreak havoc with
the environment if they were ever released into the wild. That’s why
Mueller and her colleagues are being so careful and only releasing them inside
this highly secure lab. And now put the small devices with heated blood into the cage. Heated cow blood to feed the mosquitoes. This is the second step after dozens of immature
CRISPR gene drive mosquitoes have been placed in the cages. Yes we want to give
them space to see the natural behaviors and mirror as best as we can the
African environmental conditions. To see their natural behavior a computer
controls the intensity and color of the light to mimic sunrise and sunset every
day. Yes this is the beginning of the sunset so they are going to sleep very
soon. Mimicking sunset is crucial because this is when the male mosquitoes start
their mating dance and attract females to spread their sterilizing mutation. I
really hope that we can contribute to the eradication of malaria in
the long term. This is the final goal. But Mueller knows how worried people are about these
mosquitoes so scientists are planning years of experiments to prove the
mosquitoes work and would be safe to set free into the world.