Imagining a world without mosquitoes

Jonathan Strong | Contributor

Imagine there are no mosquitoes – it isn’t hard to do. No welts to itch or scratch and no malaria too.

An article in the scientific journal Nature has set off a discussion about whether it is advisable or even feasible to kill the world’s mosquitoes.

The article, by Nature intern Janet Fang, featured numerous scientists downplaying the environmental harm that would be caused by eradicating the world’s 3,500 species of mosquitoes.

“If we eradicated them tomorrow, the ecosystems where they are active will hiccup and then get on with life,” said entomologist Joe Conlon, according to the article.

Killing all the world’s mosquitoes is not yet feasible, though scientists are working on more effective means to eradicate them.

One idea is a laser-wielding robot that can detect mosquitoes in the sky and shoot up to 100 of the pests out of the air each second. Other plans include altering mosquitoes’ DNA and introducing large numbers of impotent males into wild populations.

Even if it were possible, the idea itself is attracting criticism from animal rights groups who say it is arrogant and wrong-headed.

“It is an ecologically unwise idea to mess with Mother Nature, and wiping out the entirety of any species would almost certainly have negative — and even deadly — repercussions for other species,” said Jaime Zalac, a spokeswoman for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

Another animal rights proponent, Jerry Vlasak, spokesman for the North American Animal Liberation Press Office, went further.

“They would have us believe it’s either the mosquitoes or us. That’s just not the case. For one thing, there are way too many people on the planet,” Vlasak said.

Vlasak said more attention should be focused on the problems of overpopulation instead. “One of the problems is, they send 1 million pounds of food to Somalia and all they do is reproduce and pretty soon there’s going to be more people suffering there.”

“China is sort of an example where they were able to stabilize the population with governmental standards,” Vlasak said.

So it’s clear that humanity is not completely united in its war against mosquitoes. But a leading expert for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Dr. Larry Slutsker, suggested an alternative course: eradicating only the types of mosquito that spread malaria – only about 100 species under the Anopheles genus transmit the disease.

“I think it would be desirable,” Slutsker said, “there are plenty of other mosquitoes” to fulfill ecological niches.

The CDC estimates that around 1 million people died worldwide from malaria in 2008 and that 89 percent of malaria deaths occur in Africa.

Slutsker said current efforts to eradicate mosquitoes, which rely on insecticides, are nowhere near eliminating mosquitoes worldwide, adding that new developments like DNA alteration and laser robots are quite a ways off in the future.

“We don’t have the technology right now to eradicate the mosquito population,” Slutsker said.

NEXT: Better treatments for malaria helping to prevent its spread
However, better drugs to treat malaria are also helping stem its spread. Malaria-infected mosquitoes spread the disease to humans they bite, but malaria-infected humans also infect mosquitoes that bite them. The new drugs stop the spread of malaria from infected humans to non-infected mosquitoes, Slutsker said.

The plan to alter mosquitoes’ DNA, on the forefront of eradication efforts, is difficult and complex. Scientists have identified a DNA change that renders mosquitoes immune to malaria. The more difficult challenge is devising a mechanism by which that DNA alteration spreads in the wild.

One idea is to produce something that kills mosquitoes who don’t have the new gene, so that it would confer an evolutionary advantage on mosquitoes that do have it.

Tags : biology china environment environment tech environmental science malaria medicine science
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