A laboratory in Mali will soon be rearing Africa's first mosquitoes genetically modified to resist malaria.
The laboratory, at the Malaria Research and Training Centre, University of Bamako, was officially opened yesterday (3 August).
Its research is part of a partnership, between the University of Bamako and Keele University in the United Kingdom, which aims to develop GM mosquitoes to fight malaria.
The researchers hope that resistant mosquitoes will one day take over wild populations, eventually wiping malaria out.
Funded for three years by an £800,000 (around US$1.8 million) grant from the Wellcome Trust, the partnership has trained three Malian scientists at Keele University, and established a biosafety category 3 security laboratory at the Centre.
Mamadou Coulibaly, head of the Centre's Genomics and Proteomics Laboratory and principal investigator on the project in Mali, said the laboratory, which was finished in mid-July, should be producing GM mosquitoes by 2011.
Paul Eggleston, professor of molecular entomology at the Centre for Applied Entomology and Parasitology at the University of Keele and head of the project in the UK, said: "We wanted to take this technology out to Africa to get local scientists involved in what we were doing, to fully understand it, and become part of it. Ultimately, it's [those countries] that take the final decision about whether they want to use [GM mosquitoes] or not," he told SciDev.Net.
The production of GM mosquitoes has received approval from the University of Bamako's Faculty of Medicine, Pharmacy and Dentistry ethics committee, said Coulibaly. Mali is also working on developing its own biosafety legislation regarding GM insects with the support of the WHO, said Eggleston.
Eggleston said they hope to test their GM mosquitoes in large outdoor field cages within three years. This will be at a field station in one of the villages outside Bamako that have a long history of working with the university, he said.
Ricarda Steinbrecher, co-director of EcoNexus, a non-profit organisation that analyses developments in science and technology, and participant in the ad hoc technical expert group to the Cartagena Biosafety Protocol (AHTEG) which over the last two years has developed guidelines on the risk assessment of GM mosquitoes, said: "With GM insects — and in particular GM mosquitoes — we are faced with a number of problems that we have very little or no experience or knowledge of how to assess or deal with.
"We don't even know, or have sufficient scientific data on, what the potential harm or negative impacts might be.
"GM insects are crucially different from GM crops. GM insects are designed to spread their engineered genes far and wide and to interact with wild populations ... they will not stay put at specific locations but move into wild habitats and across national borders.
"Releases and risk assessments — and risk decisions — have thus to be a multi-national or regional concern.
"No clear or specific regulations or guidelines are yet in place for the environmental release of GM mosquitoes within any country or region. Guidelines are being worked on at international level, but concerns and uncertainties are high.
Eggleston said the team is conscious that creating GM mosquitoes in Africa was a major step and that it was important to tread cautiously.
"The risks we're talking about [in setting up the lab] are negligible but because this is the first time this is happening in Africa we feel we need to take a 'belt and braces' approach," he said.
Coulibaly added: "Ordinary Malian people think [GM mosquitoes for malaria control] are a good idea. They understand the need to control malaria. However, they do have some reservations on the possible outcomes. They need to be reassured that the laboratory will not produce mosquitoes that are more dangerous."