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WHAT IF WE DON’T KILL ‘EM ALL?

Tuesday, April 01, 2014 - 01:02 PM

(Photo Credit: Gustave Deghilage)

In our podcast KILL ‘EM ALL we looked at a new and totally mind-blowing way to fight against mosquito-borne diseases by genetically modifying them to go into the wild and work (like secret assassins) to kill future generations. This, I think you’ll agree, is one of the more dramatic strategies out there. However, it is not the only one worthy of our time and contemplation.

Here is short list of my favorite alternative methods to ending the mosquito madness:

THE UN MODEL

The brilliant Tony James at the University of California Irvine says that, instead of seeing them as our enemies, we should join forces with the mosquito to fight together (hand and wing) against the real enemies: the parasites and bacteria that get both us and the mosquito sick.

Tony’s team has created a genetically engineered mosquito (a “GEM”, as he calls them) that has such a robust immune system, that the plasmodium parasite (which spreads malaria) dies inside of the mosquito before it ever spreads to humans. In the world his research would like to usher in, we would still have a ton of mosquitoes buzzing around all over the globe – but they would all be super mosquitoes. In this peace deal, the mosquito would be free to bite and buzz and annoy us for eternity, but never again kill us in the process.

THE FUNKY FUNGUS MODEL

Before I explain how this model works, here’s a few things you need to know:

For a mosquito to get you sick with malaria, it must first bite someone who is already sick. Then the malaria parasite must spend about 6 to 8 days inside the mosquito (doing its thing). And then the mosquito must bite you, allowing the now-contagious-parasite to rush through the skeeter’s needle-mouth and into your bloodstream. The thing is, the average mosquito only lives about 8 or 9 days! So every time anyone gets malaria, that mosquito who gave it to them is living out its last precious hours of life.

So biologist Andrew Read and entomologist Matthew Thomas teamed up to harness the power of this special fungus by creating a way to spray it on walls and under floorboards and in puddles of water around your home. This fungus latches onto the mosquito and slowly start growing -  so slowly that the mosquito can live a pretty normal life. It can mate, reproduce and buzz to its heart’s delight. But the whole time, the sneaky fungus is slowly spreading itself around the mosquito's vital organs. And eventually, it kills the mosquito before the parasite inside of it has had time to become contagious.  

Essentially, the fungus robs the mosquito of the last day or two of its life and therefore stops the mosquito from taking any of our lives.

THE LONG GAME 

Our final approach requires some stamina and it comes from the author and globetrotter Craig Childs:

I have a theory. If you kill more than 130 or so mosquitoes for every one that makes off with your blood, it is no longer feasible for the species to seek you as a host. Swatting only ten or fifteen will not be enough. You must kill them all. Do this for the rest of your life, never let down your guard. Teach your children, friends and neighbors to do it. Pass the word on, and after one hundred thousand years, about thirty thousand human generations, evolutionary adaptation should kick in and mosquitoes should stop biting humans. The numbers are tough – you will have to be vigilant. 

Guests:

Craig Childs, Tony James, Andrew Read and Matthew Thomas

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Comments [12]

Miriam English from QLD, Australia

There has been a project here in Queensland, Australia releasing large numbers of mosquitoes immunised against dengue fever. Very cool. Ever since I was a kid I thought this was the way to go.

I always thought something like this could get rid of bubonic plague too. The infection makes the fleas starve which is why they bite humans, which they normally wouldn't do. Fleas are usually pretty picky about where their meal comes from. If we could immunise the fleas then they stay happy and healthy and so do we. Bubonic plague is still, in the 21st Century a problem around the world. I believe in the USA not only rats, but other rodents, such as squirrels can be vectors.

Apr. 26 2014 06:24 AM
Rob Perkins from Orono, Maine

I just love the engineered super mosquito idea and it sparked in me the idea that we could engineer vaccinating mosquitoes that deliver vaccines of all sorts to their "victims"... maybe even ones that deliver daily vitamin supplements hahaha
<daydreams>

Apr. 21 2014 08:59 AM

I really dislike mosquitos but this seems like a dangerous way to go after them. Can we just encourage everyone to swat 2-3 more per day? JK.

Apr. 20 2014 03:16 PM
Lisa

I believe that some mosquitos pollinate the cacao plant, so the question becomes, could we live without chocolate? Can anyone confirm this?!

Apr. 09 2014 11:26 AM
BEn, London from London

Great discussion, thank you.
Wonder how many more species would have been decimated if the human population had multiplied unchecked by mosquito borne illness.
And how many people would have subsequently died terrible and violent deaths due to war on our overpopulated planet?
That said, have to kill one if it's in the room! mosquito, that is. Had Dengue, not much fun!

Apr. 09 2014 09:13 AM
Andy from Denver

It seems that eradicating a species that poses an annoyance/threat/population check to humans is a little self-centered and arrogant. It may be that the purpose of the mosquito is to keep the human population in check. Perhaps more attention should be given to the population that poses an annoyance/threat/population check to all species and the planet, i.e. humans.

Apr. 05 2014 02:48 PM
Joseph Campbell

The way I see it the mosquito population is a real annoyance to the the human population.The malaria dieases may not be rampand in the U.S but in other countries around the world its worse. If it was up to me I would contiue to kill off the mosquito population around the world where they suffer from the disease. Malaria like the program said isnt a huge disease or issue in the united states so I could also say we shouldnt be to worried about the mosquito population in our country but if some want to kill the species off I wouldnt be sad about it.

Apr. 03 2014 10:53 PM
Joanie Lukins

Glad to see some real imagination applied to this problem. Clearly, wiping out mosquitoes would wipe out many, many other species that depend upon them for their diet (and on which WE depend for ours!) - that is really NOT an intelligent option. Not sure that the genetically altered "superbug" wouldn't generate some other problem that we haven't thought of yet, but it seems worth pursuing. But if it's human life we're concerned about, maybe we should focus on water-borne disease, which kills more that malaria and HIV/AIDS combined!

Apr. 03 2014 08:38 PM
Al from Wisconsin

Remember Star Wars? No, not the movies, Reagan's (failed) SDI project. Turns out that lasers are more practical targeting small moving objects at low current and distance than they are at going after large objects in space...

http://www.physics.org/featuredetail.asp?id=48

Plus, the system is tuned to only target female mosquitos, not bees, or birds, or human beings.

Apr. 03 2014 08:24 AM
sepiae

The most attractive to me would be the 1st solution - although the image of our own species developing into one the members of which spending their entire time hysterically swatting mosquitoes and thus looking positively la-lah has its charms.
I have a question:
Could you gather information about the same issue but concerning ticks?
I'm basically fond of every visible creature, even those that annoy us [thanks so much, radiolabs, for the parasite pod], and most of the invisible ones. Ticks are an exception. They're disgusting, vile, dangerous, useless, lazy, unethical, stupid, in short, I don't like 'em. I say, kill'em, kill'em all, and make a point of them noticing.
I know. I know how that sounds. Just think about it. Ticks don't deserve membership in the club of mites. They'd be shown the door if mites had a social hang-out. Giving the group a bad rep. Any long-term global catastrophe resulting from a tickocide would be preferable. And don't wait too long, don't wait until they've grown into pillow-sized mutants.
I'm all upset now just thinking of them, thanks.
But seriously, at least a program or entry about the best protection measures would be a helpful start.

Apr. 02 2014 03:41 AM
Andee from Wyoming

The problem with all of these (except the long game solution) is that they only prevent malaria. Hundreds of people die every year from mosquito-borne diseases that aren't malaria.

Regarding the FFM, cutting down the mosquito's lifespan to six days would eliminate some diseases other than malaria, but West Nile virus and Dengue fever can have incubation periods as short as two and four days respectively. A mosquito can lay eggs three times in her life, so even if you could cut their lives down to only a few days, it would still be a reasonably large chunk out of the population.

Apr. 02 2014 03:40 AM
Bob Grejdus from NY

Regarding the intent to eradicate the mosquito. I'm far from an expert on biology or entomology but mosquitoes exist in every corner of the world (except Antarctica), and has some kind of relationship to thousands of animals other than human. According to National Geographic, mosquitoes are a "reliable source of food for thousands of animals, including birds, bats, dragonflies, and frogs". Granted, the mosquito is a prime carrier of deadly diseases for humans and other animals, but what would the long-term consequences be to the thousands of animals that depend on the mosquito for food and for the thousands of animals that depend on them? It seems that there are many far-reaching, subtle, and crucial factors to consider before eradicating this insect that has a deeply integral role in the biology of the world.

Apr. 01 2014 10:20 PM

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