From his lab and office at the University of California’s Kearney Agricultural Research Center, Anthony Cornel of Reedley (Calif.) MB Church travels frequently to Africa. His mission: to alleviate suffering caused by malaria. Cornell, who has a doctorate in Zoology/Entomology from the University of Witwatersrand, South Africa, took a few minutes away from his microscope identifying mosquito species from Cameroon to talk about his work.
Why is identifying a mosquito’s species important in your anti-malaria work?
There are about a thousand species of mosquitoes in Africa, but only a few are capable of transmitting the parasite that causes human malaria. I’m one of a very small group of people world-wide who can identify mosquitoes from Africa.
Don’t we already have effective ways to prevent malaria?
Treated bed nets and spraying are becoming less effective as mosquitoes develop resistance to the insecticides. The malaria parasite itself is becoming resistant to the treatments we use. We have to look at alternative methods.
What new technologies are researchers using?
Our team includes DNA jockeys who are experts with manipulating a mosquito’s genome so that instead of spreading malaria, it actually expresses proteins that kill the parasite in the mosquito’s body.
How would you use genetically modified mosquitoes?
We would release the modified males carrying these transgenes which would mate with females in the wild. The gene could eventually spread to the whole population. So instead of eliminating mosquitos, we would just replace them with ones who cannot carry the disease.
Does this approach really work?
The technology to create those mosquitos is here. Right now we are looking for an island off the coast of Africa that has a small population of malaria-carrying mosquitoes to do our field test. Once we find the site, we have to bring some of those mosquitoes to our lab, colonize them and modify them. Within the next four and one-half years we hope to have data proving this technology can or cannot work.
How do you respond to people who question an approach that involves genetic modification?
We do our best to explain that our work is just a tiny part of the genome that affects the mosquito. We’re not creating something that is going to jump across species, but something that will stay within that particular species.