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HONG KONG, China (June 6, 2002 - Far Eastern Economic Review/Kabar-Irian)---One of life’s small, guiltless pleasures is the feeling you get when you smack a mosquito. Like the smallpox virus, there's every reason to want to eradicate mosquitoes. (There'll never be a mosquito-preservation campaign.) By passing on various diseases, mosquitoes kill millions. Yet wiping them out isn't always possible; in some areas, terrain and other factors that affect their breeding aren't all within our control. But through genetic engineering, there could be a way to make them harmless in spreading at least one disease: malaria.

According to a paper in the May 23 issue of Nature, it may be possible to stop mosquitoes from spreading the plasmodium parasite that causes malaria. Having discovered an enzyme called SM1 that prevents the malaria parasite from moving from a mosquito's gut to its salivary gland, researchers then engineered a gene that produces this enzyme in a mosquito whenever it has a blood meal. Now, they've incorporated this into mosquitoes.

These genetically modified bugs have been tested on mice infected with mouse-malaria. The result is that such a mosquito is 80% less likely to have malaria in its saliva, which would otherwise be passed on to the next animal it bites. Tests are needed next to see if SM1 will work with human malaria. The aim, if all goes right, is to put mossies into the environment to broadcast the SM1-producing gene.

These are of course early days. But even if SM1 eventually proved unable to work against human malaria, the research already done has opened up the possibility of using genetic engineering against the carrier of the disease, thus potentially adding to the arsenal. It might even lead to halting the spread of other mosquito-borne diseases, like dengue fever.

But no doubt we can expect someone, say in now malaria-free London or New York, to say that this is in principle a dangerous road to travel. We wouldn't agree. Malaria kills at least 3 million people each year, and is a poor man's disease as many of the tropical nations where it rages can't afford adequate mosquito-control programs--especially when forced to abandon the use of DDT. (For example, Florida state alone spends $90 million a year on mosquito control.) From our perspective in Asia, genetic engineering is shaping up to be a significant part of the solution to the problems facing the poor. Anyone who thinks otherwise should buzz off.

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