Mosquitoes are arguably the most annoying creatures on the planet, and on top of that they spread horrible diseases like malaria, zika, and lyme. Could we simply eliminate mosquitoes from the world? Should we?
Those are the questions that a group of Italian scientists are . These scientists have build a tightly-controlled lab to test whether a new genetic technique for eliminating mosquitoes will work, and whether such a technique would even be a good idea.
If there’s one thing scientists have learned about ecosystems over the past few centuries, it’s that they’re extremely sensitive to change and something as drastic as killing off an entire species could have wide-ranging and unpredictable ripple effects.
Even beyond that, the method that the scientists are using also has some unknowns. The researchers plan to genetically modify mosquitoes using the new CRISPR gene-editing technology, infusing a handful of mosquito larvae with targeted genetic mutations. When these mutations are passed on to female mosquitoes—the ones that actually bite people and spread diseases—the mutation damages their reproductive organs and prevents them from drawing blood.
The end result, if the genetic modifications work as intended, is that an entire generation of mosquitoes won’t be able to feed or breed. The genetic mutations will spread throughout the population and quickly cause the entire species to go extinct.
With the high-risk nature of this experiment, scientists are understandably cautious. A group of researchers have built a high-security lab where these genetic modifications will be tested in isolation. At the end of this test, we should know whether these genetic modifications are a viable way to exterminate mosquitoes.
But this still doesn’t answer the question of whether exterminating mosquitoes is the right thing to do. Unfortunately, we can only get an answer to that by testing it in the wild somewhere. If we really want mosquitoes gone, we have to take a big risk and hope we don’t somehow make the problem worse.