Editing the Mosquito Genome

May 7, 2015

Gene editing technology is opening up a whole new world for science.  Entomologists at Virginia Tech are using it to find out exactly how mosquitos transmit deadly diseases to humans.

Most mosquito species do not transmit disease, but a few native to Africa, and now showing up in the southern U.S. do; Fatal diseases such as malaria, dengue fever and chikungunya.  Those viruses kill hundreds of thousand of people each year, most of them children.

“What we’re trying to do here is understand what goes on between a mosquito and a virus that infects that mosquito,” says Zach Adelman, Associate Professor of Entomology.

Adelman is leading a team studying which genes in a mosquito control disease transmission. Using the gene editing tool known as CRSPR, they make small cuts or mutations. But even a tiny mosquito has more than 50 thousand genes.  So they came up with a way to track them to see which ones play a role in spreading deadly viruses. 

“So what we were able to do is incorporate a fluorescent protein gene into the genome at the spot where we’ve made our mutation. So now that mosquito will glow green or will glow red.  That tells us this mosquito’s been modified and we can track it very easily just by looking at it.”

Adelman says being able to track the changes scientists make to mosquito genes could help them decode what he calls…

“A very complicated set of instructions written in a language we are not privy to. But using this we can figure it out piece by piece.”