Malaria Isn’t Going Away– Yet
In 2016 there were 216 million incidents of malaria contraction in over 90 countries. Since 2015, that’s five million additional cases. And lucky us, we’re in the throes of mosquito season. Although 90% of malaria infections are attributed to Africa, the United States isn’t in the free and clear. Although we’ve managed to eliminate contraction of Malaria within the US, 22,029 patients were hospitalized for malaria in 2014. The rate of contraction among travelers is quite substantial, and most common in black males aged 25-44. (Attributed mainly to first and second generations of African decent.)
The culprits of most malaria infections are attributed to female Anopheles gambiae mosquitoes. Left untreated, malaria is fatal. Symptoms include high fever, shaking chills, vomiting, headache, and diarrhea. It’s an unpleasant way to go– and those symptoms aren’t the worst of it. Death from malaria is typically attributed to complications arising from the infection, which include:
Death Symptoms of Malaria
Cerebral Malaria: Brain swelling caused from malaria infected cells blocking the blood vessels within the brain. Irrevocable brain damage may occur if the victim manages to survive.
Taxed Breathing: Malaria may cause the lungs to fill with fluid, belaboring breathing.
Organ Failure: The kidneys and liver may fail in the hostile environment malaria creates within the body; one’s spleen is susceptible to rupture once infected.
Anemia: Malaria takes a toll on healthy red blood cell counts and may foment anemia– which is deadly if left untreated for a prolonged period of time due to complications.
Dangerously Low Blood Sugar: Resulting in coma or death, malaria may cause the body’s blood sugar levels to drop dangerously low. To complicate matters more, a common treatment for malaria, quinine, is known to cause low blood sugar.
CRISPR Paves the Way for Mutated Mosquitoes
CRISPR isn’t our first attempt at quelling a seemingly infinite enemy of public health; mosquitoes have been tampered with in droves. Each effort aimed at immobilizing the transmitter of diseases considerably. But this time, scientists poise to eliminate mosquitos’ ability to transmit malaria entirely.
Researchers at Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health isolated the FREP1 gene, which allows the parasite responsible for malaria to survive in the mosquito’s stomach. Their work centered on severing the DNA connectors ensuring the viability of FREP1. When those connections were cut, researchers observed the mosquitoes missing the FREP1 gene were less likely to carry the malaria parasite.
“The resistance to malaria parasites that’s achieved by deleting FREP1 is remarkably potent,” says George Dimopoulos, PhD study senior. “If you could successfully replace ordinary, wild-type mosquitoes with these modified mosquitoes, it’s likely that there would be a significant impact on malaria transmission.”
If you were wondering, the parasite was largely unable to stay alive into adulthood.
We Have a Bit to Go Until Anti-Malaria Mosquitoes Are Universal
Researchers were eager to introduce their malaria bereft mosquitoes into the natural environment to assimilate with their kind; however, encountered some setbacks. The team discovered their genetically altered mosquitoes were slow to mature and were less inclined to make a feast of blood. They also under-performed in laying eggs, and to complicate matters, their eggs were typically less viable than their naturally occurring peers. The research team agreed their mutations wouldn’t last long in the wild and would expire before mating with the population– directly making the genetic modification moot on a global scale.
To combat the mosquitoes’ declining performance, researchers will target the FREP1 gene exclusively in adult mosquitoes. They predict the fitness deficit experienced by the first batch of mosquitoes will not be as exponential.
What Is CRISPR?
CRISPR-Cas9 is an enzyme that cuts strands of DNA. First observed in bacteria and archaea (single celled microorganisms), CRISPR allows these organisms to respond to viral attacks by literally mincing the DNA of hostile viruses. In single celled organisms, Cas9 is somewhat limited to attacking viruses introduced into its environment. However, when CRISPR-Cas9 was implanted into complex beings, things got interesting. Unlike their single celled counterparts, where DNA was merely isolated and studied, utilizing CRISPR splicing (if you will), allows researchers to completely reinvent genetics. We’re now in an era where researchers wield the genetics of wildlife– or are at least giving the venture an earnest attempt. We’re on the precipice of redefining predetermined evolution.
How Does CRISPR Work?
For the quizzically inclined, CRISPR is pronounced “crisper” and is shorthand for: “clusters of regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats.” Think of the CRISPR enzyme as a memory bank of viruses. Where bacteria are concerned, this enzyme keeps an amalgamate of records on malicious viruses. We’re just beginning to learn how to leverage this knowledge to our own benefit– and science has dubbed mosquitoes a prime candidate for gene editing. If things go as planned, CRISPR-Cas9 will pave the way for genetically modified mosquitoes who do not carry malaria.
Here’s how CRISPR’s pioneers did it:
By virtue, CRISPR DNA snippets possess nucleotide repeats and spacers. Within these spacers lives the genetic code of virulent viruses the organism in question has come into contact with. (Remember, this is the DNA from bacteria.) Researchers have outfitted multi-celled organisms with gene-altering snippets by cutting precise points of the target, non-bacterial organism’s DNA and relying on the organism’s body to organically repair itself, thus cementing the altered code into its genetic makeup.
The Evolutionary Projections of CRISPR Gene Editing
If you’re excited to see what researchers have in store for CRISPR, you’re not alone. The ability to control genetics with technology that’s relatively accessible is enlivening several industries, including big pharmacology, agriculture, energy, materials manufacturing, marijuana growers, cancer research teams, and innumerable others. Their interests extend beyond curiosity. CRISPR’s creations are not yet in the hands of consumers, but companies are clamoring to create the pinnacle of experience for their customer base.
We’re just beginning to experiment with the possibilities of CRISPR. Industrious researchers super-powered their understanding of utilizing the basics of CRISPR to create a system which effectively switched genes on and off in real-time to respond to mutations as they happened. We don’t know what’s next for CRISPR, but we know it’s going to revolutionize our not-so-distant generational future.
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