To Curb Malaria, These Mosquitoes Shoot Blanks

By giving male mosquitoes a case of intense infertility (and counting on the females to not notice anything, um, missing from the experience), scientists hope they can prevent a second generation of bugs from spreading malaria.

For decades now, scientists have been fighting insect-borne plant and human diseases by trying to stop mosquitoes from breeding. They do this by blasting male mosquitoes with controlled amounts of radiation and releasing them into the wild. The radiation sterilizes the males by damaging their sperm, which decreases number of next-generation spawn in the population. Now scientists have found away to not just damage a male mosquito's sperm, but to do away with it entirely, fooling females with legions of genetically modified spermless males.

Researchers at Imperial College modified male mosquitoes so they wouldn’t produce sperm, and introduced them to female mosquitoes. Some female insects, like mosquitoes and fruit flies, only mate once, and the potential success of such a technique as population control would hinge on the female mosquitoes not noticing anything was amiss with their sperm-less partners.

According to the study, female mosquitoes behaved normally, and went about their usual business of getting it on, laying (unfertilized) eggs, and then losing interest in mosquito males after that, promising behavioral details if this method were to be taken seriously as a malaria control technique.

The war on malaria has already turned up some pretty left-field ideas for mosquito crowd control, including Nathan Myhrvold’s Weapon of Mosquito destruction, which detected and fried mosquitoes by identifying the audio frequency of their wings. Earlier this year, scientists created a genetically modified malaria-fighting mosquito, which would pass on the fighting spirit to their offspring, the last of a string of wildly creative ideas to curb the spread of the essentially treatable disease. Neither of those ideas have yet to make a real dent in the spread of malaria. Will these new, sad, spermless males do the trick?

Luke Alphey, a mosquito expert who works on the dengue-spreading mosquito, warns that over time, says there’s a danger that the females could get wise to the spermless males, and eventually change their behavior. If this happened, the flighty females could decide to mate again with a more productive partner, increasing the probability that they’d mate with a wild, sperm-filled male and make mosquito babies to pass on more malaria.

[Image: Flickr user wild_turkey5300]

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