Antonio Regalado in the MIT Technology Review:
Malaria kills half a million people each year, mostly children in tropical Africa. The price tag for eradicating the disease is estimated at more than $100 billion over 15 years. To do it, you’d need bed nets for everyone, tens of thousands of crates of antimalaria drugs, and millions of gallons of insecticides. But it would take more than stuff. You’d need things the poorest countries in the world don’t have, like strong governments, purchasing power, and functioning public health systems. So malaria keeps killing.
But what if, instead, you needed only a bucket full of mosquitoes?
I saw such an invention at Imperial College London. A student led me through a steel door, under a powerful gust of air, and into a humid room heated to 83 °F. Behind glass, mosquitoes clung to the sides of small cages covered in white netting. A warning sign read, “THIS CUBICLE HOUSES GENE DRIVE GM MOSQUITOES.” It went on to caution that the insects’ DNA contains a genetic element that has “a capacity to spread” at a “disproportionately high” rate.
A gene drive is an artificial “selfish” gene capable of forcing itself into 99 percent of an organism’s offspring instead of the usual half. And because this particular gene causes female mosquitoes to become sterile, within about 11 generations—or in about one year—its spread would doom any population of mosquitoes. If released into the field, the technology could bring about the extinction of malaria mosquitoes and, possibly, cease transmission of the disease.