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Using a DNA editor system, scientists from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health’s Malaria Research Institute determined that malaria could potentially be combated by removal of a single gene from mosquitoes.

“Our study shows that we can use this new CRISPR/Cas9 gene-editing technology to render mosquitoes malaria-resistant by removing a so-called host factor gene,” said George Dimopoulos, a Ph.D. and professor in the Bloomberg School’s Department of Molecular Microbiology and Immunology, as well as the study senior author. “This gives us a good technological platform for developing advanced malaria-control strategies, based on genetically modified mosquitoes unable to transmit the disease, and for studying the biology of malaria parasites in their mosquito hosts.”

Using the CRISPR/Cas9 system, these scientists honed in on the FREP1 gene in their quarry. They discovered that in deleting this gene, mosquitoes became more highly resistant to the malaria parasite, thus cutting down on its potential spread to humans. As such, these scientists allege that taking this lesson to the modification of wild mosquito populations could reduce malaria transmission to humans at large.

“The resistance to malaria parasites that’s achieved by deleting FREP1 is remarkably potent,” Dimopoulos said. “If you could successfully replace ordinary, wild-type mosquitoes with these modified mosquitoes, it’s likely that there would be a significant impact on malaria transmission.”

Deletion of FREP1 did come with other effects, though. For one thing, it eliminated the parasites that enter the human bloodstream through a mosquito bite in most of the modified mosquitoes. It also made those mosquitoes slower to grow, less likely to feed on blood and less likely to lay viable eggs.

The study was developed by Eric Marois of the University of Strasbourg and published in PLoS Pathogens.