In laboratories around the world scientists are using genetic engineering technologies to find new ways of combating insect-borne diseases such as malaria, sleeping sickness and dengue fever. While some approaches involve sterilising insects so they cannot spread the disease through reproduction, others allow reproduction but disrupt the transmission of parasites.
Ben Harder describes the advantages and disadvantages of the two approaches and details the work of several different research teams. But, he says, even if scientists are successful in producing insects that will not carry or transmit disease, they could face tough opposition from governments and a suspicious public, who may be opposed to releasing genetically modified (GM) insects into the wild.
Scientists in Guatemala researching the transmission of Chagas disease have their own solution to studying the potential effects of setting GM insects loose. Harder reports on their plans to build a mock town complete with huts and pigs, but devoid of humans. Fully enclosed in a fine mesh net, the isolated field site would allow them to research the evolution of GM assassin bugs — which carry the disease — in a 'real' environment without releasing them into the 'real' world.