Tue | Mar 19, 2019

Glenn Tucker | Zapping mosquitoes with science

Published:Wednesday | February 13, 2019 | 12:12 AM

Permit me to throw my support behind engineer Howard Chin’s suggestion that we use biology to deal with the mosquito crisis. I have often wondered why we seem to be chasing mosquitoes all over the place when they seem to be dodging us.

An obviously frustrated Dr Michael Abrahams sits in his living room with a zapper in one hand and a spray can in the other. Waiting. One wonders where he finds time for that other wildly exciting and satisfying profession he has chosen.

Another man of science, Dr Christopher Tufton, is all over the country in his water boots. He, too, is looking for mosquitoes.

Declaring myself ‘fully compliant’, I was in my yard admiring bromeliads and other plants when I discovered that the small amount of water collected in the shoots and flowers of some plants had mosquito larvae ‘kinning pupa licks and making merry’.

Can the Tufton/Abrahams solution work? Or is it just ‘fenke fenke’?

Mr Chin claims that his proposal to the relevant department at The University of the West Indies did not receive much attention. He may be wrong. Those scientists could be well aware of the necessity for caution before there is any human intervention into complex ecosystems.

Our cane farmers had a severe problem with rats. They imported mongooses to get rid of the rats. There was just one problem we overlooked. Rats feed at nights, mongooses feed in the day. So they never met.

Instead, the mongooses took a fancy to our fowls and their eggs. Our dilemma was the source of many jokes in Australia where beetles were damaging their sugar cane. ‘Learning’ from our blunder, they decided to import poisonous toads to do the job. But these toads walked past the beetles, feeding on the sugar cane, and devastated a number of native species.

Many of us often wonder which is the deadliest animal. Is it the 400lb tiger that can outrun Bolt? Is it the 20-foot, 5000lb great white shark?

No! It’s the 2.5 mg mosquito. It kills one million people each year.

SUBSTANTIAL LEGWORK

There are 3,000 species of mosquitoes. But only a few of them are a problem for humans.

My only problem with Mr Chin’s proposal is that it still requires a substantial amount of legwork.

Then there are signs that mosquitoes are adapting to the chemicals we are using to destroy them while the chemicals are harming us and the environment.

The direction in which I think we need to be going is to edit the genetic make-up of mosquitoes to render them infertile or incapable of transmitting a dangerous virus. That needle-looking proboscis, used to suck blood, could fail to develop.

Once these ‘new’ males are released to breed, the offspring, hopefully, would be male (which do not bite) or more friendly or fail to reach maturity. The mosquito will then start to do our work for us. And the need to employ an army of persons to, repeatedly, spray potentially harmful chemicals into the atmosphere would cease to exist.

Thanks to the tools of molecular biology, geneticists can now make very specific changes in the mosquito genomes. The process of engineering a disease-fighting, transgenic mosquito is now entirely possible.

I think that’s why The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation donated $35 million to the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health for the purpose of developing transgenic mosquitoes as a weapon against insect-borne diseases.

Glenn Tucker, MBA, is an educator or a sociologist. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and glenntucker2011@gmail.com