Spermless Mosquitoes: A New Way to Curb Malaria?

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Scientists may be onto a new weapon against the spread of malaria, one that doesn’t require chemical repellents or bed nets: a genetically engineered sterile male mosquito.

Reporting in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, scientists say that female mosquitoes can’t tell whether they’ve mated with a fertile or infertile male, which is important considering that females mate just once in their lifetimes.

Led by scientists at Imperial College London, the research team created 100 sterile male Anopheles gambiae mosquitoes, one of the main species of mosquitoes known to transmit malaria in Africa. The males were genetically engineered not to produce sperm, but were still able to produce seminal fluid and engage in normal mating behaviors.

These spermless males were then introduced to female insects and allowed to mate. After mating, the females laid unfertilized eggs, which did not produce offspring. And more importantly, they did not attempt to mate again. That could effectively eliminate their only opportunity to reproduce, the authors suggested.

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The Los Angeles Times‘ Booster Shots blog reported:

These spermless males may even have a competitive advantage over the wild, potent males, the authors point out, because there are certain energy costs to producing sperm. The spermless males might be in better shape than their fertile brethren.

The only drawback to this method is that it would require the constant raising and releasing of more sterile males into the wild. Another possibility would be to genetically alter a mosquito’s DNA so that it can actively destroy genes in the offspring.

Malaria remains a major public health challenge, killing 1 million per year — mostly children in Africa — and affecting 200 million others, according to data from the World Health Organization. Effective and affordable ways to curb its spread, especially in places like sub-Saharan Africa, are needed.

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Meredith Melnick is a reporter at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @MeredithCM. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.