An international team of scientists is conducting a controversial experiment in Italy. The experiment is designed to test genetically modified mosquitoes that researchers hope could provide a powerful new weapon to fight malaria, which remains one of the world’s greatest scourges.
The mosquitoes are an entirely new kind of genetically modified organism. The insects, members of the species that transmits malaria, were modified using the powerful gene-editing technique CRISPR to carry a sequence of DNA known as a “gene drive,” which is designed to drive the genetic modification rapidly through entire populations of the species.
The mutation is designed to sterilize populations of malaria-transmitting mosquitoes in the wild, causing them to crash. And that would, hopefully, help stop the spread of the malaria parasite. But the experiment is controversial because of fears that the genetically modified insects could cause unintended consequences on the environment if they were ever released in the wild.
So the mosquitoes are being tested first in a specially designed, high-security lab in Terni, Italy. The lab is designed to mimic the natural environment in sub-Saharan Africa — and to make sure none of the insects escapes.