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Mosquito Sex-Determining Gene Discovered By Virginia Tech Researchers

A. Aegypti Mosquito

In a development which could lead to a drastic reduction in the population of dengue and yellow fever carrying Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, researchers with the Fralin Life Science Institute at Virginia Tech have identified a gene responsible for determining whether the mosquitoes become males.

Coupled with the discovery of a new system which reportedly allows for a particular gene to be pushed into the next generation with a nearly 100 percent rate of occurrence, the newly identified gene could lead to a new mosquito control technique– a technique which, according to Virginia Tech molecular biologist Zack Adelman, would cause the species to produce only males “until eventually the population crashes,” which is one clear indicator as to why Adelman, who was one of the study’s authors, believes that the technology to control such systems must be created “before they can be used.”

If you release such an animal, it only produces males until eventually the population crashes (…) We need the technology to control these systems before that can be used.

As for the male-sex inducing gene, which the researchers named Nix, its discovery came after the Virginia Polytechnic Institute researchers sequenced thousands of pieces of DNA from both male as well as female mosquitoes belonging to two different strains of A. aegypti while searching for common stretches between the male and female DNA. In total, the researchers found 164 similar sequences which they then matched against data indicating which genes are active in embryos. With only 24 sequences left, they managed to pinpoint the new gene.

According to the study, which was published last Thursday in the journal Science, roughly half of the female embryos injected with DNA containing the Nix gene ended up developing male genitals.

While the exact sequence of events which led to the development of male genitals is presently unclear to the researchers, Adelman claims they know “that Nix is at the top of that cascade and that is what counts.”

The researchers found that when they removed the gene using the CRISPR-Cas9 genome-editing technique  which has currently engulfed in a patent dispute between MIT, Harvard and UC Berkeley — the male mosquitoes developed female genitals.

As for the implication on disease transmittance as a result of the genetic manipulation, the transmission of diseases spread by the mosquitoes could see a reduction in light of the notion that the males are virtually irrelevant due to the fact that it is only the females who bite in their quest to obtain the blood they require for egg development.

In other coverage of the battle on disease spreading mosquitoes here in the states, the British biotech firm Oxitec might be releasing millions of genetically modified mosquitoes in the Florida Keys if the FDA approves their experiment an experiment which aims to combat diseases spread by the insects.

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